Natick’s pickleball community made a strong showing Tuesday night at the Cole Center to discuss scheduling, courts, and etiquette with the town’s Recreation & Parks Department and Commission. More than 60 people attended the standing room only event, which smartly was scheduled on a day when the town’s outdoor pickleball courts—at Connor Heffler Park— are dedicated to a sport I believe was called “tennis.”
Rec & Parks Director Travis Farley shared an update with players, then fielded dozens of questions and comments, which came pop-pop-pop from all angles of the room. The increasingly popular paddle sport was a blessing to many who sought something active to do during the pandemic and others who enjoy the social aspect of pickleball or the competition. While many who play are beyond their glory days in other sports, pickleball has caught on with younger people as well.
Farley started off discussing the town’s decision to ditch an online scheduling app called PlayTime, which wasn’t satisfying the town or players, amidst complaints of out-of-towners hogging up court time and some not making newer players feel welcome. Among other things, the app provided the town no way to communicate with the community, such as when windscreens were added to the Heffler Park courts or when courts might be closed.
“We have a really good resident base of people who have pickleball networks. But all the messaging is done third-party, not through the Rec department, which is frustrating. I’d love to get messaging out to the pickleball community and I really can’t do that right now….,” Farley said.
The town has formed a working group, which has been taking public input from dozens of people and has been researching different approaches to meeting pickleball demand by other communities.
“This is a problem that every community is dealing with, this isn’t unique to Natick,” Farley said, adding that other communities have also moved away from PlayTime, but are each handling the situation differently. The Rec department would have liked to get this sorted out over the winter, but it’s been a challenge: “Pickleball has taken up a good chunk of my time trying to figure out a solution that works for everybody. This isn’t a topic we take lightly,” Farley said.
Ideally, Rec & Parks would like a tool that helps it collect data on court demand to help it make decisions about playing hours and the possible need for more indoor and outdoor courts. “That’s concrete data that might help me advocate for pickleball in Natick own the line,” Farley said.
One resident said plenty of anecdotal evidence has been collected over the past few years that can steer the town’s direction on this. “I think pickleball has really been underserved by the town in general,” he said, expressing frustration that various departments in Natick haven’t been able to coordinate more quickly to come up with solutions. He acknowledged that turnover at the Rec Department hasn’t helped, and that Farley, who joined the town last fall, has had to play catch up.
The town might look initially at limiting use of a new tool to residents. Natick’s considering an app called Pickle Planner, which would provide a system for players to schedule time to get together and play, but wouldn’t technically allow court reservations. Players use scheduling tools like TeamReach to connect with friends, but also to sync up with players of similar skill levels. Farley said he hopes to encourage those using TeamReach to gravitate to whatever the town winds up using.
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Numerous suggestions to address concerns and improve the pickleball experience in town were suggested by attendees, some of whom said players are largely self-policing, though there are some bad sports to deal with. Overall, the crowd seemed filled with pleasant people, some preaching patience and kindness, especially with newbies streaming into the sport.
- Offering separate times for round-robin and bring-your-own-groups play once more courts or court time becomes available
- Creating an association that would collect fees and pay for court monitors to keep things under control, or come up with a volunteer monitoring system (Farley said he’s hoping to keep pickleball on public courts free, at least for Natick residents)
- Divvying court times by skill levels
- Looking to gain access to the high school tennis courts, such as for summer and weekend play
- Exploring courts at other schools, such as Memorial Elementary School (Farley noted that it’s unclear what the future of that court might be in light of which way the town goes on rebuilding or renovating the school.)
- Dedicating Heffler Park courts to pickleball 7 days a week, shifting tennis to the high school (currently, it’s pickleball 5 days at week at Heffler Park, tennis 2 days). Sounds like this might be on the next Rec & Parks Commission agenda.
- Considering the disintegrating basketball courts near the dam in South Natick for pickleball, one day perhaps replacing the soothing sound of the spillway with… pickleball paddling
One Rec & Parks Department challenge is that it can’t make decisions overnight without taking formal steps through its regular meetings (tennis players or neighbors might want to have their say…Farley described a call from a tennis player who felt bullied by pickleball players) and by coordinating with the school system. Farley said he hopes to have a new app in action within a week or 2 of the next Recreation & Parks Commission meeting, slated to happen in early May.
The Rec & Parks Department plans to have another public meeting in July, then also see how things are going by year-end.
Information on town summer programming, including pickleball, should be out shortly.