Innovation Park gives pickleball players a place of their own

SAN MARCOS — It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning, and the four pristine navy blue and royal blue pickleball courts sit empty.

But not for long.

Thirty minutes later, 16 baby boomers — two on each side of the courts — armed with large graphite paddles slap what resembles yellow Wiffle balls across a waist-high net to the other side, to which their opponents respond with an equally forceful volley.

About 10 other players sit on benches and along the fence, waiting for their turn to play.

This is the scene at Innovation Park, the 36th and newest park in San Marcos, nestled between two massive apartment complexes along Armorlite Drive just south of Palomar College.

City officials celebrated the park’s grand opening Oct. 12, which included the dedication of what is believed to be the county’s first-ever outdoor facility built specifically for pickleball, a sport that is rapidly rising in popularity among America’s seniors.

That is not to say that there aren’t places for people to play the sport in San Diego County. According to some players, there are more than 100 places you can find a game, but mostly on tennis courts and basketball courts and indoor multi-purpose courts where players have to fight for time with the other sports.

“We never had ever had a place that was truly ours,” said Beckie Garrett, a former San Marcos school board member and avid pickleball player. “And San Marcos heard us, and in less than a year they finished this beautiful facility. They gave us a home.”

According to a 2016 survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 2.5 million people play pickleball, up 1.8 percent from the previous year. Of those, 75 percent of the 930,000 “core” participants — who play eight or more times a year — are older than age 55.

City officials said that they identified pickleball early on as the centerpiece for the 1-acre park, which also includes a sleek children’s play area and a small dog park.

Buck Martin, the city’s community services director, said the city narrowed the choices to a basketball court and a pickleball facility.

“But a basketball court wasn’t what we were looking for here,” Martin said. “We had a lot of support within the community for a pickleball facility, it became a pretty easy call.”

In 2015, when the city was hosting workshops to receive community feedback on updating the city’s parks master plan, pickleball players came in force to at least one of the meetings to ask the city for courts of their own.

“I think of the 50 speakers we had, 40 were pickleballers,” Martin said.

Pickleball players out on the Monday morning said the biggest benefit of having a court dedicated to the sport is the simplicity of the lines. When playing the sport on, say, a basketball court, it’s oftentimes hard to distinguish the pickleball lines, such as the “kitchen,” the two royal blue spaces on the Innovation Park courts.

“It is so much nicer than any temporary courts because you have all the colors for all the different parts of the court, whereas with the temporary ones you have the basketball lines, the tennis lines, you have pickleball lines,” Steve Walsh said. “It’s just, you play a better game. I just wish it was four times the size because it is already being overrun with people, it’s fabulous.”

Walsh’s wife, Anne, echoed the sentiments of all the players on the court that day: they consider the park a “gift.”

“I feel so privileged that the city of San Marcos did this for us, I feel like it’s a gift because we love to play pickleball,” said Anne Walsh. She added that the converted pickleball courts in her Lake San Marcos community are in “terrible” shape.

“In the meantime, the city of San Marcos gave us this gift, and we are thrilled,” she said.

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