The Southwest Florida pickleball industry is receiving almost $700,000 from Collier County’s tourist development tax upon approval by the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday.
Naples is often referenced as the pickleball capital of the country by lovers of the sport, as East Naples Community Park is home to the internationally renowned Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, which take place in April each year.
The $670,000 grant that will come from tourist development funds will go toward renovating the pickleball courts at East Naples Community Park along with beautifying the surrounding space.
“As with everything in the Sunshine State, the sun, the weather, our repeated hurricanes coming through, it requires a little bit of ongoing maintenance for the courts, windscreens and just simply beautifying it for the event,” Collier County Tourism Director Paul Beirnes said.
East Naples Community Park had nine permanent pickleball courts when co-founders of the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships Terri Graham and Chris Evon held their first 800-player event in 2016. Now, the park contains 64 courts and this year’s tournament had 3,000 players. However, the most significant increase was in the number of spectators with 2,000 spectators in attendance six years ago to 35,000 in April.
“This is the facility that started pickleball facilities being built around the country,” Graham said. “It started here in Collier County. You created this monster of a facility with 64 permanent courts. But now it’s time to keep up with the Joneses, quite frankly. Everybody’s chasing it; they’ve researched our numbers down here; they’ve researched the tourism numbers down here not just seven days but 12 months out of the year.”
Besides the courts being used for the U.S. Open Championships, they are open to the public daily. According to Biernes, the park receives more than 13,000 unique visitors annually except on the weekends and between noon and 5 p.m. each day. The courts need to be resurfaced and upgraded because of daily use of the courts and the harsh Florida heat.
Commissioner Rick LoCastro is supportive of investing in the pickleball scene in Naples but wants to see the industry using more of its revenue for improvements moving forward. Last year the county funded a new visitor center and pro shop in the facility.
“We subsidize a lot organizations who bring heads in beds and bring all kinds of great, wonderful things to Collier County so that is valuable, that’s why I say that the money is an investment,” LoCastro said. “But having said that, as we go forward and like I said I have no objection to this so this is in the future and we’re going to be talking a lot back and forth, I would just like to see some of these organizations that continue to explode and be very successful to share the load a bit more financially.”
LoCastro mentioned how other areas in East Naples could also benefit from those taxpayer dollars by implementing more green space if the pickleball industry invested more into their own events.
“It’s not [Tourist Development Council] money that says pickleball or nothing,” LoCastro said. “And then I also look in my own district and go wow, that East Naples Community Park is the Taj Mahal, it’s an unbelievable shining example. But then, this might be apples and oranges because I realize different pots of money can only be used for different things, but I get disappointed when I have neighborhoods that are filled with kids that don’t even have a playground.”
Commissioner Andy Solis thinks this almost $700,000 investment is the appropriate use of tourism dollars as the Southwest Florida pickleball craze continues to grow and will also benefit the entirety of the park.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is an investment in our parks, this isn’t a grant to offset some advertising,” Solis said. “This is actually improving our own facility so we benefit from it in a way. I think Commissioner LoCastro raises some great issues, we always have to be more efficient and more careful with taxpayer money but this is a pretty good investment I think.”
The commissioners unanimously voted in approval of the pickleball grant.
“We want this to continue to be the crown jewel of pickleball through the world,” U.S. Open co-founder Chris Evon said. “This is a huge international event for this community and it’s just going to continue to get better.”