BELFAST, Maine — The improbably named sport of pickleball is quickly catching on in Belfast, where a couple of dozen people per day picked up a racket at a temporary court at Belfast City Park last summer and played a game.
However, several city councilors are wondering whether the sport’s newfound popularity in the city — particularly with its older residents — is enough of a reason to convert one of the municipality’s two basketball courts into four dedicated pickleball courts.
Belfast Parks and Recreation Director Norm Poirier estimated that converting the dilapidated basketball court would cost more than $24,000.
That money would be used to resurface the court and install permanent nets and a chain-link fence so balls wouldn’t travel between the basketball and pickleball games, Poirier said. Belfast pickleball enthusiasts are hoping a national pickleball association or other funding source will fund about 60 percent of the conversion costs.
“It’s becoming a very big thing,” Poirier said of pickleball. “This summer was the first full summer we had makeshift courts at City Park. We had an average of 25 to 30 people playing pickleball in a day. They’d hang out there for hours, rotating through.”
Pickleball is a game played with either two or four people that combines some aspects of tennis, ping-pong and badminton on a hard-surfaced court that is 20 feet by 44 feet. Players hit wiffle balls with paddles a little bit bigger than a ping-pong paddle back and forth across the net. According to the USA Pickleball Association, about 70 percent of players are 60 and over.
Councilor Mike Hurley raised the concern at the Dec. 15 regular City Council meeting that if one basketball court is converted for pickleball, there will only be one public outdoor court left in the city.
“I like the idea of pickleball,” he said at the meeting. “Are we OK with reducing our net basketball court inventory to one in Belfast?”
Poirier said the city recently spent about $10,000 to rehabilitate one of the basketball courts.
“The amount of use hasn’t increased and hasn’t decreased,” he said. “What I’ve noticed in the three years I’ve been here is that we probably get maybe an average of 20 people playing basketball throughout the day. I’ve never seen a full five-on-five pickup game.”
Councilor Neal Harkness raised another worry. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Belfast has an older population than the state as a whole. Nearly 22 percent of the city’s residents were 65 and older in 2010, compared with 15.9 percent of Mainers.
“I’m a little concerned about sending the message that this is a town for seniors, not for young people,” he said. “We have no intention of replacing basketball altogether.”
Poirier said he is planning to reach out to officials from Belfast-based Regional School Unit 71 to see whether there is any interest in building another basketball court as a cooperative project between the school and the city. He expects to return to the council by March with a revised proposal.
Nina and David Halbert, two of Belfast’s pickleball players, said they would love to see a dedicated court in the city.
“We play at City Park during the spring, fall and summer. In the wintertime, there’s too much snow on the ground,” Nina Halbert said. “It’s very addicting, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s very social. The group of people you get to meet are fun to be with, and it’s a great way to get exercise.”