BELFAST, Maine — Under a clear blue sky Thursday morning, pickleball players began gathering at Belfast City Park to hoist lightweight paddles and engage in one of their favorite past times — hitting a wiffle ball back and forth across a net.
Popularity of the unusually-named sport is surging around the country, and certainly in Belfast, where an enthusiastic crowd plays the game most mornings and some evenings.
“We like this group,” said Renee Miller, a special education teacher who lives in New Hampshire during the winter and in Belfast in the summers. “We bought a house here because of pickleball.”
Pickleball has gained a deeper toehold in the midcoast city after city councilors this week approved the idea of permanently turning one of the two basketball courts at Belfast City Park to four dedicated pickleball courts.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in America,” Bill Carr of Belmont told the Belfast City Council Tuesday night at the regular meeting. “Playing at the park is fantastic. It is the best place to play.”
In December 2015, a similar proposal was given a lukewarm response by the councilors, some of whom wondered if the sport’s growing popularity here was enough of a reason to reduce the number of public basketball courts in the city to one. Some also said they didn’t want to give the appearance that Belfast is a place for seniors, but not for younger people, because pickleball is especially popular among older Americans.
According to the USA Pickleball Association, about 70 percent of players are 60 and over.
Currently, three pickleball courts with portable nets are spray painted on one of the basketball courts at the park. Aficionados of the sport told councilors that in the summertime those courts are very busy. About 20 pickleball players per day use them five days per week.
“Pickleball does seem to be here to stay,” Councilor Eric Sanders said.
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.
Belfast Parks and Recreation Director Norm Poirier said that Belfast is interested in building a second basketball court in another part of town and would maintain the one basketball court at Belfast City Park that has recently been repaired.
According to Poirier, many Maine municipalities are joining the pickleball bandwagon.
“If you look around the state, the number of parks and rec departments offering pickleball are really incredible,” he said.
Pickleball proponents say the current court needs to be resurfaced for safety, and their proposal adds a fourth court.
Councilors unanimously agreed to expand pickleball opportunities in the park, but they did not discuss how to fund the expansion other than telling the proponents they will be expected to do some fundraising.
According to a 2015 proposal from the Belfast pickleball group, it would cost more than $18,000 to expand, level, resurface and install permanent nets in the dilapidated basketball court that has been marked for the conversion. A second phase of the project, costing nearly $4,000, would install a chain-link fence between the pickleball courts and the basketball court to keep balls from crossing over.
Councilor Mike Hurley said after the meeting that the city has “kicked it back” to the parks and recreation department.
“We accepted the concept. Now, come back with a plan to raise the money,” he said.
Poirier said Thursday that it is likely the matter will be brought back to the City Council by the beginning of September. The city has set about $10,000 aside to do the work with the rest needing to be raised by the pickleball group, he said.
Pickleball players who came to the meeting told councilors that the game encourages tourism, because people travel to pickleball destinations nationally and internationally, and that it provides fitness and social opportunities for people of all ages.
“There are really nice folks, and we laugh a lot,” Carr said. “It sounds like we’re drunk or something, but we’re just having a good time.”