Longboat attempts to keep tennis, pickleball at Bayfront

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Longboat Key Town Commissioners directed the Town Manager to determine if there is a site to build additional pickleball courts at Bayfront Park.

The decision is the latest in the Town’s initiative to accommodate the ever-growing popularity of pickleball while keeping the existing tennis courts at Bayfront Park.

Heading into the meeting last week, Town staff offered numerous proposals and possibilities including building tennis courts at Durante Park or at other sites that the Town owns.. Staff also presented the idea of leasing a pair of dilapidated private courts, which are located near the Town Public Works facility on General Harris Street, and making the necessary improvements.

The Commission listened to these options and each commissioner had a slightly different take.

Vice Mayor Ed Zunz said it would be a shame to remove tennis from Bayfront Park and especially prior to the construction of a replacement to the two tennis courts at Bayfront that staff proposed could be repurposed into six pickleball courts.

Zunz questioned if there might be space at Bayfront Park to build courts given that the Town no longer plans to construct a large cultural and recreational facility on the site as was once proposed. A cultural and arts activity center is now planned to be built on the four-plus acres the town owns to the east of Publix and Chase Bank near Town Hall.

Mayor George Spoll went further in stating that the tennis courts were part of a desired and integrated plan when the town expanded and redeveloped Bayfront Park with Sarasota County less than a decade ago.

Commissioner Ken Schneier as well as Commissioner Jack Daly both suggested that Bayfront Park was a suitable location for both activities in that there is already parking in place and that it would meet both needs and simply makes sense in a community park.

Commissioner Mike Haycock said he was a pickleball player and added that he was “admittedly biased,” but said his personal observation was that the tennis courts were not used intensively and that numerous private courts exist on the island.

One Longboat Key resident said he regularly plays tennis at Bayfront Park and that there are busy round robbins held during season and in the afternoon and evening there are very few pickleball players, but the tennis courts are often busy.

Resident and Planning and Zoning Board Chair BJ Bishop said that she town should keep its recreational offerings together at Bayfront Park and not eliminate tennis at the expense of pickleball and to find a way to build the new pickleball courts on the park property.

Town Manager Tom Harmer told Longboat Key News that he and staff will look at the entirety of Bayfront Park to see what land is available and suitable to build additional pickleball courts. The original desire of the commission was to build eight new pickleball courts on Longboat Key, and this could be accomplished if suitable land is available at the park.

A determination of whether the Sarasota County, or southern, section of the park could accommodate pickleball courts will depend on if that land can be utilized for active recreation. The expansion of the park and the funds used by Sarasota County for its redevelopment were for the creation of passive recreational space.

One commissioner suggested that the kayak launch could be relocated or the site of the recreational building utilized, while others eyed the green lawn that stretches between the recreational center building and the bay.

Public Works Director Isaac Brownman told the commission that storm water runoff would have to be addressed and captured due to the impervious nature of court construction.

Harmer said the commission was clear that the Town would  not proceed in repurposing any tennis courts at Bayfront Park until a decision on where to build new pickleball or replacement tennis courts is reached.

“The commission wants us to look at the entirety of Bayfront Park and see if we can have pickleball without removing tennis. I think it could be accomplished,” said Harmer.

One issue raised by Commissioner Daly is whether pickleballers will contribute to the cost of adding no less than a half dozen courts. The pickleball community originally said it would help fund the expansion, but no commitment has been made.

The town commission allocated $100,000 toward the project, but so far that is all that is budgeted.

One possibility, said Harmer, is that one or any number of pickleball courts could be lit at Bayfront Park, as the two tennis courts are presently, thereby allowing nighttime play.

The issue is slated to return at the town’s October workshop when Harmer and staff should know where pickleball is possible and at what cost.

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