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City officials respond to volley of pickleball complaints

Mark Parker



Image: Unsplash.

Part 2 of 2. 

A growing and vocal group of pickleball enthusiasts believe St. Petersburg is unaccommodating to their sport; however, city officials say that could not be further from the case.

Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator and director of parks and recreation, has the difficult task of ensuring equitable access to all sports and activities for people of all ages and backgrounds. He is also charged with maintaining a significant amount of greenspace – as mandated in the second line of the city charter – in every St. Petersburg park.

Pickleball’s popularity has soared in recent years, and Jefferis is well aware. His department has followed that trend, and others, he said, for years as part of its national accreditation.

While unsure of the exact date, he said St. Petersburg installed its first pickleball court over eight years ago. Not only does he welcome the sport, as long as it doesn’t detract from others, but he also began the conversation by listing pickleball’s unique advantages.

“It’s intergenerational, which we just absolutely love,” said Jefferis. “We love the idea of grandparents playing with the grandkids. It gives folks of all playing levels and skill levels an opportunity to participate, and that’s one of the things that really attracted us to the sport.”

Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator and director of parks and recreation. File photo.

Despite those enticing aspects, Jefferis said he disagrees with the assertion that as pickleball’s popularity increases, the amount of tennis players decreases. The two sports often share playing surfaces, with a game of pickleball fitting on half a tennis court.

Jefferis said he also sees an influx of new tennis players, many of whom picked up the game when Covid forced people outdoors and into the park systems. In addition to pickleball and tennis, he has also noticed an increase in golfers, swimmers and people taking advantage of St. Petersburg’s green spaces.

If the popularity of one racket-based sport vastly outweighed the other, Jefferis said it “would make my job a lot easier.”

Dr. Ed Carlson, USA Pickleball Association ambassador to Pinellas County, recently formed the St. Pete Pickleball Association. He leads a vocal group pushing for more pickleball courts and noted the parks and recreation department provides 60 lighted tennis venues throughout the city.

Jefferis explained the city also offers 25 outdoor pickleball courts, and 18 indoor venues, and said Bartlett Park would soon receive eight additional courts. That will leave the burgeoning sport just nine courts behind tennis. Accusations of being “anti-pickleball” are “crazy,” said Jefferis, in light of those numbers.

However, after repeatedly hearing stakeholder groups assert that his balancing act favors one sport over the other, he decided the claims warranted further investigation.

“I thought, well, man, maybe I’m doing a bad job,” said Jefferis. “Let me do some research.”

According to Jefferis, the City of Clearwater has just eight pickleball courts. The City of Tampa, with a significantly higher population and more space than St. Petersburg, has 10.

“So, when the stakeholder groups want to paint a picture, the numbers don’t support their argument,” said Jefferis. “Everybody wants what they want, and it’s one of those things where I will tell you that as a community, we – or any community – could never build enough.”

Dr. Ed Carlson (second from left), USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador to Pinellas County. Photo provided.

Carlson, 82, recently relayed that Councilmember Copley Gerdes spoke to 72 people at a Jungle Terrace civic meeting in July. He said Gerdes, who represents that district, told attendees that a city study showed residents used courts for tennis and pickleball equally, and “everybody just went insane.”

Carlson led a 12-day study encompassing four popular pickleball locations – Coquina Key Park, J.W. Cate Recreation Center, Crescent Lake Park and the Walter Fuller Recreation Center. According to the sport’s local ambassador, his team county 794 pickleballers and just 46 tennis players.

While he appreciates St. Petersburg’s preponderance of passionate pickleball players, Gerdes said Carlson’s study was “a little bit” of apples to oranges comparison. Gerdes explained that the first three parks mentioned in the informal study are known as pickleball hotspots, and he and Jefferis believe that time of day and other factors can skew the results of a participation study.

Gerdes, who lives near Walter Fuller, said he and his wife spend at least a couple of mornings walking through the park each week. He noted some days they see people playing pickleball, and other times, tennis. Either way, the ultimate goal is inclusivity for all residents.

“We know that it’s (pickleball) is popular,” said Gerdes. “We know that there’s demand there, and we want to try and do that too. But we’re not going to do that at the detriment of other users throughout the city.”

Councilmember Copley Gerdes. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

He believes the city is “doing a great job” of serving its growing population of pickleballers and adding courts where it is feasible.

Carlson also advocates for an expansive complex with enough courts to host large tournaments that he said would boost the local economy. As a representative of District 1 on St. Petersburg’s west side, Gerdes said he continues to explore public-private partnerships to build such a facility.

Gerdes added he “would love” to have a complex that could host pickleball, baseball, softball and basketball tournaments. He will continue trying to find ways to attract more sports-related facilities and events, he said, for as long as he is a council member.

“I think St. Petersburg should be a sports destination,” Gerdes said emphatically. “I think we should be able to host national tournaments in most sports because of where we live.”

Jefferis is a staunch believer in openness and fairness in local government and said he welcomes conversations with any stakeholder group. He will then bring concerns to city council members and said they are “pretty far down the path on this topic.”

There is no magic number, said Jefferis, who believes the city could offer 80 pickleball courts and still receive complaints. Conversely, he relayed that if he continues removing tennis courts – or paints confusing lines over them for dual usage – those players would then fill City Hall to express their dismay.

“We’re (St. Petersburg) 60 square miles,” said Jefferis. “I want to make sure that everybody has that access.”

Read Part 1 here

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  1. Avatar

    D K

    September 11, 2022at9:31 am

    use the million dollars of BP money

  2. Avatar

    Rita Sewell

    September 11, 2022at3:33 pm

    Reservations for courts on line. Show up late loose your spot. Time limited play based on typical game.

  3. Avatar

    Danny E White

    September 12, 2022at3:48 pm

    Pickleball is well-established as an intergenerational and fun racket sport, that is clear. The question to ask, I believe, is how many people who want to play pickleball in St. Pete are unable to do so due to unavailability of a court? The City appears to have thoughtfully addressed the number of pickleball courts vs. tennis courts. It would be fiscally irresponsible to erect or convert courts to accommodate what may very well be a fad that has not been around long enough to no indicate that it is sustainable as traditional tennis has proven to be.

  4. Avatar

    Kannan Sreedhar

    September 16, 2022at4:20 pm

    I think the City of St. Petersburg has done a good job regarding providing courts for pickleball and tennis. However there are always going to be passionate pickle ball players who will complain that there are not enough courts. You have take a more measured approach and I appreciate City’s efforts.

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