By Jill Draper
“Pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport! It began in the early 1970s as a game for seniors, had a national association by 1984 and in 1990 was played in all 50 states.”
That’s how Karen Loeffelholz, a Red Bridge resident, began the fact sheet she composed two summers ago for politicians and city officials during the 2019 PIAC hearings. New pickleball courts are everywhere in the metro area, she pointed out—except in south Kansas City’s 6th District.
Loeffelholz, a former tennis player who now likes the smaller-sized courts used in pickleball, had what she thought was an inexpensive idea. Why not convert a few of the 12 tennis courts at Minor Park into dedicated pickleball courts? She made a spot check of the tennis courts at different times of the day and different days of the week, never finding more than one or two in use.
“When tennis was really popular, my friends and I played on the courts there,” she remembers. “Now I think Minor Park needs a new draw.”
After filling out a PIAC form on the city’s website, her request was assigned a case number and referred to the Parks and Recreation Department. A parks engineer noted the sport’s growing popularity, commenting on her request, “I would highly recommend installing more courts within the city.”
To prepare for a public meeting on PIAC requests, she collected articles from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News about other towns that replaced or converted underused tennis courts with pickleball facilities and saw a big rise in multi-generational use. She talked with Kansas City’s PIAC administrator, community activist Stacey Johnson-Cosby and the office of Kevin McManus, a 6th District Councilman. She figured 3 of the 12 tennis courts could be made into 8 pickleball courts by simply installing new nets, new striping and a bit of short fencing.
The Parks Department considered the request and estimated the cost of demolishing existing courts and installing multi-use courts for pickleball, tennis, handball and futsal. That estimate was $89,500. She’s still unclear about how many courts this estimate was based on.
“I don’t know how it got from what I wanted, to what they came up with,” she says. “It seemed like a very small request. We just wanted to change what we’ve got.”
Loeffelholz rounded up five fellow pickleball players to attend the first PIAC meeting with her to show support for the sport. But she didn’t know that another small group connected with high school tennis attended a later PIAC meeting and strongly objected to converting any of the 12 courts, which they said were used for practice and tournaments.
That was news to her. “Do they use them once a year, or what?” she wonders. “I doubt that they rent the courts or anything like that.”
In the end, the pickleball request was denied. Loeffelholz was disappointed, because it was initially well received. She still believes it would greatly benefit Minor Park.
For a long time she was not interested in resubmitting the request. But now she thinks it’s worth one more effort, since the research and paperwork is mostly completed. Meanwhile, she has to go across the state line into Kansas to find outdoor pickleball courts or wait to use the busy courts at Brookside Park.
According to Fred Wickham, spokesman for McManus, each year the city receives around $50 million in PIAC requests for the 6th District alone, but can fund only about $4 million. Two PIAC representatives and two 6th District councilmembers decide which projects to fund. John Sharp, an ex-councilman and Telegraph writer, is one of the representatives.
Sharp notes that many PIAC requests are submitted two or three times before they’re successful. Of course, some are never funded at all. Safety issues such as stormwater control projects must be given first priority, he says.
Still, his message for Loeffelholz is to keep trying. “Don’t give up,” he urges, adding that some amount of PIAC money is approved for a park project each year, such as new playground and exercise equipment installed recently at Migliazzo Park. The best solution, he thinks, would be to build four new pickleball courts north of the existing tennis courts at Minor Park. A city engineer estimates this would cost $250,000.
“I certainly learned a lot,” reflects Loeffelholz, “and everyone was very helpful.” When she resubmits her request, she’ll need to work around an extended visit from her grandchildren. She hopes maybe next year they can play pickleball together at Minor Park.
Virtual hearings for PIAC requests are Tuesday, July 13, and in-person hearings are August 10th.