Pickleball courts coming to Fort Gratiot Township

For the third year in a row, pickleball, a game that combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, was recognized as the fastest-growing sport in the country. Originating in the 1960s, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association there are nearly nine million players in the U.S. today with over 11,000 locations on USA Pickleball’s Places2Play Map.

Fort Gratiot Charter Township may have its very own place on the map soon with work being done to bring several new pickleball courts for local residents and community members to enjoy.

Robert Crawford, Fort Gratiot Charter Township Supervisor, says the fast-growing sport is popular with all ages, showing up in community centers, P.E. classes, and YMCA facilities. It’s even popular in retirement communities, with senior citizens particularly enjoying pickleball.

“The largest demographic for players is 55 and over,” he says.

It’s a demographic not always considered first priority in the conversation of parks and recreation, but with more and more local residents becoming smitten with the sport, the township is looking to increase accessibility to pickleball.

“Fort Gratiot Parks Commission and Board of Trustees have been asked to build pickleball courts by residents and players,” Crawford says. “The Fort Gratiot Parks survey identified pickleball courts as the number three recreation activity requested to be added to our parks. The first was trails, the second was a splash pad.”

Crawford says pickleball enthusiasts currently travel outside of Fort Gratiot to play. Nearby areas include Jake Simpson Wilderness Park in Clyde Township, a 17-acre park with two pickleball courts. The City of Port Huron Parks & Recreation Department also has reservable pickleball courts at 16th Street Park.

Fort Gratiot resident Mark Smith, a recent retiree, now has more time to play pickleball, a sport many of his friends have played for years. While the weather warms up, Smith has been playing inside at the Port Huron Tennis House and tries to play at least once a week.

Fort Gratiot resident Mark Smith playing pickleball at the Port Huron Tennis House.

“That’s the cool thing about it, you can be 65-70 years old and still play competitively,” he says.

The sport is also affordable, making it more accessible, he says. Beginner racquets and balls can often be found at nearby sporting goods stores for around $30. He says he enjoys the fast pace of the sport and plays in a league with around 16-24 people of all ages.

“You don’t have to run as far, because it’s a shorter court,” he says. “I played six straight games, and I came home with my heart rate up. I did some sweating and could tell I got a workout, but it wasn’t to the point where I can’t move right now and that’s probably my favorite part.”

In total, there are over 259 acres of parkland owned and operated by Fort Gratiot Township which includes the Robert E. Crawford Little League Park, North River Road Park, Fort Gratiot Park, and McIntyre Park. Current park amenities include kayak launches, playgrounds, ball fields, bleachers, tennis and basketball courts, horseshoe pits, sandboxes, wetland preserves, nature walks, and more.

While pickleball courts are not currently on the list of amenities, local residents and staff are hoping to change that. According to the 2018-2022 Parks and Recreation Master Plan for Fort Gratiot Township, the township utilized two Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grants since 1972, including a $47,360 riverfront park improvement in 1991 that helped renovate ball fields, tennis, and basketball courts.

“We applied for the first round of DNR Spark Grants and were not successful,” Crawford says.

The DNR Spark Grants is a $65 million grant program to benefit communities by creating, renovating, or redeveloping public opportunities for residents and visitors. Although the first round of Spark grants has passed, Crawford is hopeful the next round of applications will be more successful.

“Our goal for this year is to use our appropriation from county park millage and our grounds crew members’ labor to start construction of the roadway, parking, and hopefully two courts,” he says.

On Parker Road across from Fort Gratiot Canine Commons, work is underway to clear the road and prepare for the construction of two pickleball courts.

In total, the township hopes to build six pickleball courts, two of which it will tackle this year. A concept plan has been created for the proposed location on the west side of Parker Road across from Fort Gratiot Canine Commons.

The local community has voiced support for the effort in the form of letters from individuals and organizations such as the Community Foundation of St. Clair CountySt. Clair County Parks & Recreation Commission, Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County, Blue Water Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the YMCA of the Blue Water Area.

Crawford hopes the courts will encourage recreation for visitors and residents alike, and perhaps even create the opportunity to host pickleball tournaments.

“Our goal is to use our parks to attract people to visit for the day, weekend, or a lifetime,” he says. “Building pickleball courts is an activity people have expressed interest in being added to our parks. Visiting players may shop or dine, supporting our 24th Avenue business district. The business district has a taxable value of $110 million and supports county, township, local schools, fire, and police millages.”
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.