SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees discussed several possible plans for paddle tennis and pickleball courts as part of the ongoing renovations at the Baird Community Center at its meeting on June 13, finding itself split on which concept was best. The Biber Partnership, the architecture firm that was hired to remodel and redesign the Baird, presented two options.
The first option, if built, would be two paddle tennis courts and one pickleball court. The second option would be three pickleball courts and no paddle tennis court. One major difference between the two is the price. The first concept has an estimated cost of $1.17 million, while the second concept has an estimated cost of $916,837.
The BOT took an unofficial straw poll to gauge support for both concepts; Trustees Bill Haskins, Karen Hartshorn Hilton and Bob Zuckerman were in favor of the first option, while Trustees Summer Jones, Bobby Brown and Donna Coallier were in favor of the second. Village President Sheena Collum was absent.
“We did a survey in town and asked people what they thought would be the best use of the space,” Brown, who chairs the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, said at the meeting. “Based on that along with the master plan, the company came up with the proposals. Both of them are well done, but there are some differences.”
South Orange Recreation Director Peter Travers said at the meeting that both court concepts contain room for basketball, native plants and picnic areas. There is the potential that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection revises the floodplain boundaries, which could affect the budget for platform courts; the outcome of that discussion is not yet known.
“Pickleball has been around for a while, but it’s gaining a lot of steam,” Travers said. “There’s definitely a demand that far exceeds what we have with our existing pickle courts, which also aren’t real pickle courts. They’re lines on a tennis court that require the depth to be adjusted. But paddle is also in demand. They both are popular sports. If I had to pick which one has more participants, I would probably say pickle is more popular, just based on what I’ve seen.”
South Orange used to have paddle courts; they were removed several years ago. Zuckerman said the players have been active in advocating for new courts to be built, and this is a good chance to do so. The closest public paddle tennis courts are in Maplewood; there are private courts at Orange Lawn Tennis Club. The closest pickleball courts are in Millburn.
“I think it’s important that we return the paddle courts to South Orange,” Zuckerman said. “We took them away, and I understand why we did. But I think it’s important to bring them back. There are a lot of people who play paddle tennis. I think there is a vibrant community out there, and I think we should support that.”
Hilton and Haskins agreed; Haskins said at the meeting that the wide support for paddle tennis in the community and the fact that the raised courts would be environmentally friendly because they would have an impervious surface, proving beneficial to the town in the event of heavy rain, factored into his decision.
On the other side, Coallier and Brown said they wanted to choose the option that would serve the most people in the village.
“When I looked at the pros and cons, the thing about paddle tennis that is the strongest is the community and its willingness to reach out to us and attend meetings,” Brown said. “I appreciate that, but at the same time, I think our mandate has to be serving a community now and 20 years from now. I struggle to get there with paddle tennis. I think pickleball gives us more residents that can use the space.”
Jones said the difference in cost between the two options was the biggest factor for her, saying only building pickleball courts would be more effective.
“It comes down to cost, just from a resident perspective,” she said at the meeting. “I do recognize there is a strong community that loves paddle tennis; I just can’t get past the cost. If there were planned programming and asks from the middle school that’s right there, then I might be able to change my decision, but I haven’t seen that at the committee meetings. That’s my overall concern.”
After the tie, Brown and Travers said the recreation committee would discuss the plans again at its next meeting. Travers will also ask for more specific cost estimates.
“I can go back to the design firm to see if they can put together construction documents with alternate bids for one versus the other,” Travers said. “Then we’ll have a true cost once we receive bids back. We’ll have two alternatives, and maybe that’s the best way to move forward.”