Pickleball advocates get hard-fought win at Finley Park

The last two dedicated tennis courts on the west side of Santa Rosa will now accommodate the newer, fast-growing sport as well.|

A typically businesslike virtual meeting of the City of Santa Rosa’s Board of Community Services got a colorful backdrop Wednesday afternoon. More than 100 committed pickleball players had turned up at Finley Community Park to urge the board for the resource they say need most: courts.

“This is twice as fun as tennis,” said Gordon Bolton of Santa Rosa as he left the courts, moments before the board met. “And I played tennis for 25 years. It’s very social, and it only takes about half a year to be able to compete. It’s just fun.”

After a meeting that was often hard to read, Team Pickleball got what it desired, a promise from the city to stripe two existing tennis courts at Finley so that they could be used for pickleball.

The pickleballers weren’t asking for much, they insisted. They would love new courts sprinkled around Santa Rosa and the rest of Sonoma County. (Kathy Kerst, an official pickleball ambassador for the North Bay, made a recent inquiry to the Koi Nation, suggesting courts at their proposed resort and casino in Windsor.) But they were looking for a more modest quick fix.

The group appealing to the community services board proposed to “cross-line” the last two dedicated tennis courts at Finley Park — the last tennis-only courts on the west side of Santa Rosa — making them instantly convertible to six pickleball courts, and to store mobile nets on-site.

The whole thing will cost about $15,000, they say. Jen Santos, deputy director for the city’s Recreation & Parks Department, dropped a surprise on the pickleball advocates late in the meeting, noting they’ll be asked to pay for the whole thing.

The picklers promise to operate under a tennis-first approach to the mixed courts. If Serena Williams wanders by with her racket, she will take precedence.

The group points to Sunrise Park in Rohnert Park as a model. That facility has six permanent pickleball courts, and six temporary ones cross-painted on a pair of adjacent tennis courts. Because pickleball is overwhelmingly played as a doubles game, that means as many as 48 players can be thwacking the whiffle-style plastic balls back and forth at one time.

Pickleball, as those who love to play it will tell you, is the fastest-growing sport in America. That assertion was backed in January by The Economist, which reported that between 2014 and 2019, participation in the sport grew by more than 7%, while Americans’ overall activity level remained flat, according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association.

And the spurt has accelerated during the pandemic. Portable pickleball nets temporarily sold out in March 2020.

Kerst and her husband, Ken, remember when they were two of four regular players at Finley Park. By 2013, the local advocacy group says, the number in Santa Rosa had climbed to about 70. Now their ranks number more than 1,000.

But court space hasn’t risen with demand. In 2015, there were eight dedicated courts in Santa Rosa. Today? Still eight courts.

At Finley, it’s typical for 20-30 people to be packed around the pavement in the morning, chatting and waiting for a chance to play on one of the park’s six temporary courts.

Kerst and her team presented ample evidence of the imbalance. Taking a head count at Finley during the week of July 25-31, they tallied an average of 7 tennis players per day between 9 a.m. and noon, Monday to Friday. During the same five-day period, the courts averaged about 370 daily pickleball players each morning. Yet it’s tennis that had the only claimed courts here.

The pickleball group has talked to the city about new courts at Howarth and Galvin parks, too. Both of those sites, they say, are in need of surfacing and safety upgrades that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Though pickleball players come in all ages, the core of the Sonoma County enthusiasts were born well before the sport was invented in 1965. It’s a group with some organizing power and time on its hands, and its frustrated members came to Finley Park armed with small paddles and sizable indignation.

They found a mixed audience among the Board of Community Services members.

“You totally sold me,” Carolina Spence told the group, which also had submitted more than 100 letters to the board. “It looks like what you’re suggesting is temporary-slash-timely. It’s a good way of getting additional courts without costing a lot of money.”

Others were less receptive.

“To have no dedicated tennis courts on the west side of Santa Rosa doesn’t sit well with me,” board member Carole Quandt said.

After the pickleball representatives presented their case, a number of tennis players logged on to offer counterarguments. Christopher Williams said he bought a house near Finley Park two decades ago in part to live near tennis courts.

“When you start drawing lines on tennis courts, it makes it really hard to play,” Williams said. “I’m not rich. I don’t have money to just up and go.”

As the pickleball crew listened to the board members’ final questions and comments, they grew increasingly resigned to failure. They needed four of six votes to ensure the city would move forward with dual striping, and they didn’t appear to have them. But when it came time for a show of hands, two members — Terri Griffin and MaDonna Feather-Cruz — had experienced late changes of heart.

The board voted 4-2 to add those yellow lines.

The assembled pickleballers reacted with shock, then elation. They whooped and high-fived, even as a couple tennis players milked the last few minutes of dusk on the court in front of them.

“I am so glad!” said Jo Anne Cohn, known here as the Mayor of Pickleball. “I can’t wait for everybody to come out and play.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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