Proposal to raise Collier pickleball fees draws players' ire, prompts scrutiny of contract
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A proposal to raise pickleball membership fees at two popular Collier County parks has caused a stir among players and prompted closer scrutiny of a contract between the county and its pickleball concessionaire.
County commissioners last month were asked to raise pickleball fees at Veterans Community Park and East Naples Community Park and establish a new fee for out-of-county residents using the courts.
But amid concerns about the steep increases and the current agreement with the vendor, who pockets up to 87.5% of the revenue, commissioners postponed a decision and signaled they want to rework the contract.
“I think the direction is pretty clear: We want to see that agreement and see where it needs to be modified,” Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said at the mid-January meeting. The issue is scheduled to come back to the board later this spring.
The proposed fee hikes — which were requested by the county’s vendor, Pickleball Enterprises, and recommended for adoption by county staff and an advisory board — would in some cases triple the existing rates.
How the fees would change
A non-Collier resident, for instance, would have to pay $150 instead of $50 for a one-park membership. An annual membership for one park for a Collier resident, meanwhile, would double, from $50 to $100.
A non-Collier resident wanting to buy a membership for both parks would have to pay $200 annually instead of the current $75, a 167% jump. For a two-park membership a Collier resident would have to pay $125 instead of $75, a 67% increase.
The proposal also recommends raising the drop-in rate from $5 to $7 for both Collier residents and non-residents. Annual memberships for players 21 years and under would remain at $10.
The county and Pickleball Enterprises in 2017 entered into a five-year agreement to have the company run pickleball operations at East Naples Community Park. The company provides a year-round Pickleball Academy and three major tournaments each year at the park, according to the county. The agreement was extended for five years last October.
Pickleball Enterprises was also awarded a five-year agreement for Veterans Community Park in 2018.
Before the agreements with the concessionaire, the county used full-time staff to coordinate the play, but county officials eventually determined that outsourcing operations could provide better support and also offer pro-shop items, academies, training, coaching and development of tournaments.
Part of the reason why the county chose to outsource pickleball at the two parks was the sheer number of players who sought out the sport, county officials have said.
At East Naples Community Park, the company keeps 85% of the gross revenue with the rest going to the county. At Veterans Community Park, Pickleball Enterprises retains 87.5% of the revenue and the county receives the rest.
The concessionaire also pays the county a monthly fee for electricity and a rental fee associated with tournaments conducted by the company.
If the increases were to go into effect, revenue is estimated to jump from roughly $80,000 to $220,875, a 176% increase, according to county documents. The proposed fee hikes would net the concessionaire an estimated $121,500 increase in revenue. The county’s revenue portion would climb by $19,370.
Current fees below market rate, officials say
The proposed fee hikes were tucked away on part of the commissioners' Jan. 14 agenda known as the consent agenda. It is reserved for items considered routine that are grouped together and passed with one vote and without much discussion.
But Commissioner Andy Solis, after receiving emails from pickleball players about the proposed fee hikes, pulled the item for further discussion.
“It’s doubling the fees to be a member to play pickleball from 50 to $100 for residents,” Solis said. “And we, not that long ago, went from $25 to $50. And I want to understand the rationale behind that.”
County staff in its report to commissioners wrote that the concessionaire requested the fee adjustments to bring pickleball rates “in line with local market rates.”
Jim Ludwig, executive director of Pickleball Enterprises, said in an interview with the Daily News that the increases are needed to pay for and keep the staff that runs operations at the two parks and serves the players.
"In order to be able to satisfy this many people every day, it's just very expensive," he said. During season, some 400 people show up at East Naples Community Park — where the most courts are located — to play every day, Ludwig said.
Between the two parks and his academy he employs 15 people and may have to hire more as the sport's popularity continues to rise, he said. Point of sales systems, websites and software, among other things, also add to his expenses.
Additionally, Ludwig said his team is working on technological improvements to cut down on the time lost between groups of players leaving and taking a court. He also envisions electronic boards instead of the white boards currently used to organize who plays on what court and when they play.
"And make it a better experience for them," Ludwig said.
In the future, he said, players — much like patrons at a restaurant waiting for a table are paged — would receive notifications on their phones when it's their time to take a court.
Currently, it takes on average three minutes per court for players to switch, Ludwig said. The new technology would save about two minutes per match, he said, which — with 64 courts eventually coming to East Naples Community Park — adds up.
Ludwig said he volunteered his time to help grow the sport and "invested up front to make this thing work."
He and his wife, who own the rights to the name "Pickleball Capital of the World," have spent years making sure they give the best experience to all of the players and worked with the county "day-in and day-out," Ludwig said.
"It's not an easy thing to do," he said.
Ludwig said he is open to negotiating different revenue-sharing rates with the county. But if he can't make it work, he said, he is also prepared to move on and walk away all together.
"I didn't get into this for the money," Ludwig said. "I got in it for the people."
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The county staff report cited comparisons with local YMCAs, where county staff say annual costs for players exceed the rates that are being proposed.
Some residents, however, have pointed out that YMCA memberships come with perks beyond pickleball, including extensive classes, weight rooms, pools, showers, and more for no additional charge.
“I think there’s some discussion about, you know, the YMCA, for example, if you join you’ll have a variety of amenities,” Barry Williams, the county's parks director, told commissioners last month. “But again, there’s no other place like this where you can play exclusive pickleball, you know, at this level.”
Pickleball 'phenomenon' in Collier
At East Naples Community Park, Williams said, there are more pickleball courts at one location “than anywhere in the state.”
“There’s nothing like this,” he said, “in terms of the amount of play that you have here.”
Over the past few years, pickleball has taken Collier by storm. And players have flocked to the two parks, county staff say.
When Williams and other county officials dropped by East Naples Community Park earlier this year, there were 500 people playing, he said. At Veterans Community Park, Williams said, 250, 300 people show up.
“So it’s grown into this phenomenon,” he said. “It’s hard to say any other way.”
A lot of people come from Bonita Springs to use the courts at Veterans Community Park, Williams said. The recommendation, he said, was to look at a fee increase that identified those people who want to play in Collier but may live in Lee.
And a percentage of the revenues the county receives are used to maintain the facilities and reinvest back into the park, Williams said.
“The example I give is East Naples Community Park," Williams told commissioners. "We’re doing some touch-up and resurfacing in preparation of the U.S. Open with some of those funds that we get back. We also have current plans to resurface existing courts at Veterans Park.”
Still, the proposed increases and the agreements between the county and the concessionaire have puzzled some commissioners and residents.
Commissioner Penny Taylor last month suggested that county staff look at the contract again. She said fee increases should be going to construction to increase the number of people who can play.
“I’m a little confused that the concessionaire suggested we raise the rates ... ,” she said. “I’m not saying there’s anything untoward here. It’s just a little confusing.”
Player: 'Just a money grab'
Residents, meanwhile, have emailed commissioners, largely questioning and opposing the fee increases.
Among them is Christine O’Sullivan who lives in Pelican Bay and has been playing at Veterans Community Park for three years. To her, the proposed fee increases are “just a money grab.”
“I think that the concessionaire has got a real good cash cow business here,” O’Sullivan said in an interview with the Daily News.
Across county lines in Lee County, outdoor pickleball courts are first come, first serve, with no fee, according to a Lee County spokesman. The indoor courts at the recreation centers charge a one-time $10 lifetime facility membership fee or $25 for a family.
All courts are open play, and the Lee parks and recreation department does not have any contracts or agreements with an outside company for pickleball.
Lee County parks and recreation has nine pickleball locations. Indoor court numbers vary depending on the gymnasium schedule and locations, and there are 23 outdoor courts.
In Lee, there is no price difference for residents versus non-residents.
'A lot of people do care'
O’Sullivan also questions what services are being provided by the concessionaire.
Players largely self-manage by putting their name on a white board and call their own courts ready, she said. O’Sullivan said the concessionaire will supply a white board marker when they run out of ink.
“What services are provided?” she asked. “Close to nothing.”
The contracts require the concessionaire to provide “normal and routine daily, monthly, and yearly maintenance of the facilities, designed to keep the premises and equipment in a good state of repair, free from hazardous conditions and deterioration.”
Playing at Veterans Community Park, O’Sullivan said she has noticed that some of the courts have cracked and uneven asphalt, poorly marked pickleball lines and “shoddy” nets.
Windscreens had been left half-hanging in areas until they were recently fixed, she said, and one court was out of service for more than a month because of a defective net.
There are differences between the two parks, too, she said. Veterans Community Park doesn’t have lights, though Ludwig says they will eventually be installed, while East Naples Community Park does. Proposed fees, as they are now, would be the same for both parks.
“Courts in East Naples are lovely,” O’Sullivan said. “They’re not as lovely” at Veterans Community Park.
She also disagrees with Williams, the parks director, about the number of people who frequent Veterans Community Park, where she plays regularly. At prime time, O’Sullivan said, about 60 to 70 people play there.
“And there’s no management of them at all,” she said.
To O’Sullivan it’s not about whether people can pay more in fees, it’s about whether they should pay. She said some people in the pickleball community don’t care about the increases while others do.
“A lot of people do care,” O’Sullivan said. “They think it’s not equitable.”