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City chooses south side pickleball site

Thunder Bay’s city council has approved the Northwood Playfield as a future outdoor pickleball site.
20220815 Bow Valley Pickleball Association- Pickleball clinic JH 0016
City council has selected the Northwood Playfield as a future site of outdoor pickleball in the south side. (Jungmin Ham RMO)

THUNDER BAY — The city has taken a step toward a dedicated outdoor pickleball facility in the south end, but it’s likely to be years before the courts are built.

A city council vote held Monday will see staff move forward with detailed planning for an outdoor pickleball facility at the Northwood Playfield Park for inclusion in a future city budget.

Parks manager Cory Halvorsen called it unlikely the city would find room in its limited parks and open spaces budget for the project until at least 2026, unless outside funding was secured.

The resolution passed Monday directs staff to support the Thunder Bay Pickleball Club in applications to external funding agencies, in hopes of speeding that timeline.

The club had presented to council in June, asking the city to partner in exploring a facility at Northwood.

Monday's decision was informed by a city survey filled out by 185 people this fall. That consultation indicated pickleball players are looking for dedicated courts, not the shared courts at tennis facilities.

The feeling is mutual, staff added, saying tennis players often find the distinctive popping sound of a pickleball game “distracting” and prefer separate facilities.

That noise has also prompted intense backlash to the sport by nearby residents in some communities.

Parks supervisor Werner Schwar said all three locations considered in the survey — Northwood, Chapples Park, and Westfort Playfield — had been assessed for noise concerns.

“We feel there is opportunity in each of those to provide acceptable noise levels to surrounding residences,” he said.

The city’s south end currently boasts only shared courts, at the Westfort Playfield, South Neebing Park, and Confederation Park.

While the Westfort Playfield was ranked highest as a possible location by survey respondents, staff recommended Northwood as a more central and accessible location close to amenities including parking and washrooms.

In a report, staff also noted the Westfort Playfield is being considered as a future baseball and softball hub, suggesting a pickleball facility could conflict with those plans.

The city opened its first dedicated pickleball courts in 2021, adding four at Boulevard Lake in recognition of the sport’s growing popularity.

That facility, which also includes two tennis courts, cost around $400,000 to build in 2020.

Councillors addressed a minor controversy over the pickleball club’s members-only booking of that facility for times including prime hours several days a week, which generated pushback from other users.

“I don’t know what it is about pickleball, but in all my years in elected office I’ve never seen such acrimony about any one topic,” said Mayor Ken Boshcoff.

Staff said the city will implement changes next year including allowing the club to book only two of the four courts during prime time.

They added that having only one dedicated facility contributed to conflicts over limited availability.

A planned tennis bubble at Chapples Park will include a flexible oversized court that can be converted into four pickleball courts, but those will be available only for daytime use.

Coun. Rajni Agarwal questioned municipal investment in the initiative, asking if it would be better for pickleball groups to pursue a fee-for-use model similar to the Thunder Bay Community Tennis Centre.

“For us to invest our dollars in one sport, I think that’s very dangerous, because there are so many sports that are available to be played,” she said. “We’re just going to open it up for every sport wanting everything else.”

Staff responded with a long list of sports for which the city has funded outdoor venues.

“Investing in this does not promote one sport or activity at the expense of other activities,” said city manager Norm Gale.

Staff also called it “premature to pursue an indoor facility at this time,” saying indoor pickleball would be better incorporated into future “recreation hubs” being considered at locations including the Canada Games Complex.

Staff added the Thunder Bay Pickleball Club itself has dropped its push for an indoor facility for the moment.

The club currently organizes play at three indoor locations: the Moose Hall, Boys and Girls Club, and a local high school.

The organization says its membership has grown rapidly since launching in 2021, now at around 240.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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