Pickleball, soccer supporters weigh in on proposed sports center

GEORGETOWN — Pickleball’s seniority is weighing in on the proposed Sussex Sports Center that is banking on $1.5 million in Sussex County support.

“The face of Sussex County and the population that lives here is dramatically changing,” said First State Pickleball Club president Kathy Casey at the Oct. 10 county council meeting. “One third of the population is senior citizens, which is why you are seeing the explosive growth of pickleball. We retire and some us go into a little bit anxiety because we have no idea what to do.”

Susan Brooker, a United States Pickleball Association ambassador, addresses Sussex County Council at its Oct. 10 meeting.

“Sussex County is just a perfect spot to grow pickleball,” said Millsboro resident Marion Lisehora, who at age 86 is hooked on the sport she took up six years ago. “We’d really like to have the county council’s support on this complex and get us going on it. We are lacking places to play. Seniors need something active to do.”

County council, after an Oct. 3 presentation by Sussex Sports Center Foundation members Joe Schell, Bobby Horsey and Zachary Crouch, requested public input on the multi-faceted sports complex that someday could be the foundation for a county-based parks and recreation initiative.

The foundation has asked for $1.5 million in county financial support for the $4 million complex off Sand Hill Road north of the CHEER Community Center. As planned, the sports complex would feature eight full size Bermuda grass athletic fields accommodating soccer, field hockey and lacrosse and touch football, walking trails, a certified cross-country course that could host large-scale competitions, playground equipment, a pavilion/picnic area and at present six pickleball courts.

More pickleball courts could be added, based on demand and popularity.

Organizers are shooting for public use in spring 2019.

Susan Brooker, a United States Pickleball Association ambassador and pickleball coordinator for Delaware Senior Olympics, cited the need for more facilities in southern Delaware. She noted most tournaments are held in Kent County.

“We need one desperately here. Most of pickleball players are from Sussex County,” said Ms. Brooker. “This sport is the fastest growing sport period. This would be the beginning of something great. We can do this all together.”

Pickleball, a paddle/ball sport that’s sort of a condensed version of tennis, is attracting players pre-teen into their 90s, supporters said.

“I also know that having an active, healthy lifestyle is really critical to this population because they represent the biggest chance of disease coming your way. The healthier you keep us the happier you’ll be,” said Ms. Casey. “Most importantly what I watch and why this project is so near and dear to me is I get to see the joy that is created as a result of having health and recreation, where anybody regardless of socio-economic status has the opportunity to go out and play. Pickleball is probably one of the least expense sports to enter. I know it is taking off like wildfire among all age groups. Anybody can play pickleball.”

“My health is wonderful,” said Ms. Lisehora. “I play three hours day. Among the seniors I am oldest in the club. I play with my grand-kids; I play with my children.”

First State Pickleball Club membership was 424 as of the Oct. 10 presentation.

County council also heard from soccer enthusiasts.

Sussex resident Steve Burke, speaking on behalf of the Henlopen Soccer Club, said the club has approximately 1,300 players and is willing to pay its share. The club’s board of directors unanimously voted to arrange the club’s fee structure for annual support of up to $50,000.

“We understand that this is a difficult decision,” said Mr. Burke.

In addition to the active lifestyle component, Chris Nichols believes the sports complex would be beneficial in attracting new business and retaining existing business and development.

“People want to go to places where they see themselves with a future. Everyone who is choosing to move here sees themselves here. I am asking you, please, help us let the kids and their families see themselves in Sussex County,” said Mr. Nichols. “Someone has to work at the hospital. Someone has to build the houses. Someone has to fix the HVAC. Telling them to do that and then take your kids somewhere else for the weekend is not the Sussex County that I want to be in.”

John Anderson, a member of the Henlopen Soccer Club board of directors, said the club is in “dire need of a well-maintained home” for the club’s more than 1,300 players aged 4 to 17.

“I look at this from the sake of safety for the young people. The fields that we are playing on right now are adequate but there are issues always to be addressed. So, this new sports complex would be a wonderful boon for the young people here in the county.”

Sussex Sports Center Foundation members have emphasized the proposal is community-based with operational revenue coming from some tournaments, camps, reserved agreements with clubs for specific times and fields and special events such as rentals for weddings.

“It’s a nonprofit. We’re not trying make money,” Mr. Schell said at the Oct. 3. “Most of the public that walks in through the front gate or drives in and parks their car in the parking lot won’t pay a penny.”

The foundation projects funding sources for this public/private partnership will be $2.6 million from the private sector, and $1.8 million from the town of Georgetown, Sussex County and the state of Delaware, Mr. Schell said.

An additional $350,000 placed in a reserve fund would cover any financial losses in the early years of operation. Foundation members say operation projections predict a $20,000 profit in 2022.

At some point in the future if the county wishes to get into the parks and rec business there is an “option to buy the facility from the foundation for a dollar,” said Mr. Schell, who is donating the land for the sports center.

Packaged in the project are plans to address the traffic bottleneck at the intersection of U.S. 9 and Sand Hill/Airport Road. From the $4 million, $250,000 is allocated to purchase two parcels required for intersection realignment.

The Delaware Department of Transportation is applying for a $7 million grant from federal government to fix that intersection, Mr. Schell said.

County councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, inquired about the timeline on council’s decision. “I don’t know of any timeline,” he said. “Where are we on that process?

“I think when Mr. Schell was here to make his presentation we generally said we’d accept comments in October,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson. “I look to council for guidance.”

Mr. Lawson said he would gather all input received electronically and for an update. “There is no hard deadline. I do think they (the foundation) do want a decision,” said Mr. Lawson.

“I would have questions, some additional questions from the feedback that we are getting. I would warrant some more questions,” said Mr. Arlett.

The matter will be placed on the agenda at an upcoming regular council meeting. County council does not meet Oct. 17.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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