More than 30 people came out to Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting on a brisk Thursday evening to talk about one thing many of them had in common: a passion for pickleball.
Pickleball is a racket sport played with a paddle and ball on an indoor or outdoor court about a quarter the size of a full tennis court. Participants can play both singles or doubles. The sport has exploded in popularity over recent years as a social outlet and a fun way to exercise.
Tennis and equity issues were also raised at the meeting.
Currently, some of Evanston’s public tennis courts have additional lines and nets that people can use to play pickleball. But most people who showed up at Thursday’s meeting had one major bone to pick – the city does not have a single permanent court specifically for pickleball.
During the public comment portion of Thursday’s meeting, several Evanston residents spoke up about how they travel to neighboring towns like Northfield and Buffalo Grove so they can play on permanent courts without worrying about converting a tennis court setup or competing for time with tennis players.
“Pickleball is here to stay, and it’s just going to continue to get bigger and better,” Susie Kleinman told the board. “Look at the community here, how many people are active doing this. That, to me, says the world. I’m 75 years old, and I hope to be able to continue doing this.”
Several people also talked about problems they encounter with playing on a converted tennis court with the lines for both tennis and pickleball. Evanston Township High School tennis coach Don Walton, for example, said he leads lessons and camps for younger kids, who often get confused about the lines when they play on a multipurpose court with the lines for both sports.
“Tennis courts with lines on them have a very narrow use when it comes to pickleball and teaching pickleball,” said Marc Rolfes, an Evanston resident and longtime racket sports player.
Community members also spoke about the role that pickleball plays in their social lives and how they use the sport as an outlet for meeting new people, interacting with their kids and grandkids and just hanging out with their friends. Rolfes said that all three of his children and their significant others play pickleball now, so his family always goes out together to play on holidays and whenever they are all together.
But one obstacle to the development of pickleball-specific courts in Evanston remains the needs of the tennis community. The Evanston Community Tennis Association has 146 paying members, according to President Debbie Cassell, and the organization plays host to major events that happen every year and summer leagues, among other things. Every July 4, for example, the group holds a community tournament at Ackerman Park.
Many of Evanston’s tennis courts are also in disrepair and unusable for official match purposes, Cassell said. As a result, tennis and pickleball players need to come together with the parks board to figure out locations for permanent pickleball courts that would also accommodate the tennis community’s desires, Parks and Recreation Director Audrey Thompson said Thursday at the meeting.
“Tennis players are actually being driven out of Evanston because they have to find other courts to play on,” Cassell said. “They already have other matches in other places, including the South Side of Chicago, so they are driving pretty far to play matches against teams that cannot come here because we do not have the courts anymore.”
And going beyond concerns about competition between tennis and pickleball, Gerald Daye, president of Evanston’s Haitian Community Organization, spoke at the end of the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting about the need for outreach to people of color about opportunities in parks and recreation. He asked board members to make sure they bring pickleball to the Black community in Evanston, as well.
“Every group seems to be represented except us,” Daye said.
Budget and construction issues
In the 2022 budget, the city allotted about half a million dollars to resurface 14 tennis courts at Robert Crown Community Center, James Park, Burnham Shores and Bent Park. Those construction projects will take place between April and June 2023, according to Deputy City Manager Dave Stoneback. The court resurfacings did not actually take place in 2022 so the city could “gather additional feedback from community members regarding pickleball and tennis court markings,” according to Evanston Communications Manager Patrick Deignan.
Overall, Evanston has 38 public tennis courts, Thompson said. Previously, the Parks Department came up with a plan to resurface all 38 courts and convert half of them into pickleball courts, but Thompson and her team now want to adjust that plan based on community input.
“We’re trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube, for lack of a better term,” Thompson said Thursday.
Moving forward, the city can meet with groups of people representing the tennis and pickleball communities to figure out the right number of tennis courts to convert for pickleball in the resurfacing process, according to Thompson. The question that remains up in the air, though, is if the city has the money to accommodate both needs.
“How does it happen that we have a group of 25 people who showed up and said we need a skate park, and we find $1.26 million for a skate park, and we have all these people show up for pickleball, and we’re not going to have $1.26 million for pickleball?” Parks and Recreation Board President Robert Bush said. “How do we tell them that?”
In response to Bush’s query, Stoneback said the people who showed up Thursday to advocate for pickleball need to lobby their respective City Council members to use money in the city’s budget on pickleball courts.
“Evanston, in my opinion, has a structural issue with funding the upkeep of its infrastructure,” Stoneback said. “I would guess that the majority of the residents that were here tonight would be glad to pay a few extra dollars in taxes to be able to get the pickleball and tennis courts done, but that’s not the will, I’m assuming, of the majority of the residents of Evanston.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Leahy Park’s tennis courts would be resurfaced in 2023. The fourth area of courts that will be resurfaced is actually Burnham Shores, not Leahy Park. The RoundTable regrets the error.