Fourteen years ago, Stanley Volkens drove around Middletown and counted 16 tennis courts in public parks, and no one was playing.
Volkens called the Park Board and asked if any tennis courts could be converted to pickleball courts.
From those humble beginnings, Middletown now proclaims itself the “Pickleball Capital of Ohio.” There are 16 pickleball courts at Lefferson Park, and the Middletown Pickleball Association, an all-volunteer group, plans to add two courts next year.
Middletown has the most pickleball courts in the state, one more than Mentor, said Michell Cook, board secretary of the local pickleball association. To build that many courts from the ground, Cook estimated it would cost $150,000, but because of volunteers, donations from the City of Middletown, Middletown Community Foundation, proceeds from previous tournaments and private groups, the association built the courts at a much lower cost.
The MCF gave the association a $1,500 grant last year to aid in expanding the courts, said Traci Barnett, executive director.
The association will host the 12th annual Middletown Senior Pickleball Tournament Aug. 1-3. Open-aged singles matches will be played Aug. 1, followed by senior players, those 50 and older, playing doubles Aug. 2 and mixed doubles on Aug. 3.
The tournament has a record 268 registered players from eight states. Five years ago, the tournament drew 112 players, Cook said.
Cook said most of the out-of-state players will stay in Middletown hotels, dine in local restaurants and provide a boost to the local economy.
Mary Huttlinger, executive director of the Middletown Visitors Bureau, said the tournament is “a great opportunity to showcase Middletown’s revitalization” because players are in town for several days, staying overnight and experiencing all of Middletown’s attractions over a long weekend.
The pickleball tournament typically has a $300,000 economic impact so the visitors bureau is “very interested in helping the tournament grow and flourish,” Huttlinger said.
Cook said the board tries to treat the visiting players as “guests.” So players are provided food and snacks and coffee and food trucks will be set up.
“We want it to be like a family reunion or festival,” Cook said. “It seems to be working.”
On Friday, under a stifling sun, about 50 players were practicing at the Middletown Pickleball Courts. Without the courts, Cook said the area would be “completely empty.”
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