September 5, 2018

Founders Park currently offers pickleball on one court.

File Founders Park currently offers pickleball on one court.

ISLAMORADA — Pickleball players got a positive response from Founders Park managers and advisers Aug. 30.

In response to surging popularity of the tennis-like sport, Islamorada park manager Maria Bagiotti plans to recommend to Village Council members Sept. 6 that the Founders Park basketball court should become two part-time pickleball courts.

“We’re laying the groundwork,” said Carolyn Wightman, chair of the Islamorada Parks and Recreation Citizens Advisory Committee. “Pickleball is not just a flash in the pan.”

Pickleball has been described as a combination of tennis and ping-pong, using an oversized paddle to volley a wiffleball-like plastic ball on a small court, about one-third the size of a tennis court. The pickleball net is lower than a tennis net.

Advocates say the sport can be learned quickly by players of all ages. The Villages residential communities in Central Florida have built more than 100 pickleball courts.

The one pickleball court at Founders Park cannot accommodate the growing demand, especially in the cooler morning hours, said a group of pickleball players who attended Islamorada’s Parks and Recreation meeting last week.

“We urge you to think about building as many [courts] as you can,” said Bob Bos. “It’s getting big.”

Parks board members endorsed a short-term plan to resurface and improve the existing pickleball court in the Founders Park fitness yard, and paint permanent pickleball lines on the nearby basketball court for two new pickleball courts.

The lighted court would be available for basketball at night and during physical-education classes for local charter schools. Pickleball (named after the sport inventor’s dog) activity peaks in the morning.

With approval from the Village Council, creating two new pickleball courts on the basketball court could happen within a few months at an estimated cost around $6,500, Bagiotti said.

“We acknowledge this as a short-term Band-Aid,” Wightman said.

Park staff and advisers said the tennis courts at Founders Park are heavily used, so suggestions to convert some of the tennis courts for pickleball could spark conflicts and hard feelings.

“They have great programs and we don’t want to do anything to disrupt that,” Bagiotti said.

In other Keys parks, tennis players have contended that adding pickleball lines to the court creates a baffling maze.

Proposals for a dedicated pickleball complex of four to six courts at Founders Park, the players’ preferred site, will be considered as a long-term project.

“We’re here to be supportive, but we’ve got to deal with the [financial] realities,” Wightman said.

Islamorada staff would have to determine the best location for the pickleball courts and secure an estimated $170,000 for construction.

The soonest that might happen probably would be in 2020, Bagiotti said.

“That looks like forever but that’s the reality,” she said. “We realize the need and want to accommodate our residents.”

“If we move anything inside the park, we’d be jumbling existing user communities,” Wightman said. “We want to be respectful of them, too.”

“Make it inclusive so we don’t alienate people,” advisory board member Rich Russell said.