Municipal
Features

The pickleball coup

How the struggle for control of a Gulf Island's racquet racket led to a local organized revolt

By Ben Mussett
February 8, 2022
Municipal
Features

The pickleball coup

How the struggle for control of a Gulf Island's racquet racket led to a local organized revolt

By Ben Mussett
Feb 8, 2022
Pickleball players and tennis players have been squaring off on Mayne Island over use of the courts. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily
Pickleball players and tennis players have been squaring off on Mayne Island over use of the courts. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily
Municipal
Features

The pickleball coup

How the struggle for control of a Gulf Island's racquet racket led to a local organized revolt

By Ben Mussett
February 8, 2022
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The pickleball coup
Pickleball players and tennis players have been squaring off on Mayne Island over use of the courts. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily

The room was packed, and the mood was tense. A large turnout and capacity limits, brought on by COVID-19, meant the Mayne Island Community Centre had to turn some folks away at the door. “You’re trying to suppress the vote!” accused one person. 

Instead of the usual 10 or so attendees, well over 50 people showed up to the centre’s annual general meeting (AGM) on Nov. 24, 2021, many of them armed with proxy votes from other island residents or so-called part-timers. Those who couldn’t get inside milled near the entrance of the red and green cottage-style building. 

“I had never seen anything like it,” says Laurie Cooke, who served as the centre’s administrative coordinator until recently resigning. “I knew what was going to happen.” 

Nestled in the Southern Gulf Islands, Mayne spans 21 square kilometres of forest, beach, and pasture. Red-barked arbutus trees dot the shoreline. About a thousand people live here year-round, though that number can more than double in the summer. Nobody is more than a 15-minute drive away. There’s one gas station, one church, one school, and no traffic lights—or even street lights, their absence enhancing the night sky. The median age on the island hovers around 65, more than 20 years above the provincewide figure, but it’s beginning to trend younger. 

Like many rural towns, Mayne has seen an influx of newcomers during the pandemic, perhaps driven by the fact that many folks can now easily work from home. In contrast to any city, getting anything done here depends on people donating their time, says Jeanine Dodds, a local trustee. “Everything that we have on the island is built by volunteers,” she tells me. 

And it’s been that way for as long Dodds can remember. She moved to Mayne when she was seven when her parents took over the Springwater Lodge, believed to be the oldest continually operating hotel in BC. That was 62 years ago, a time when a young Dodds called everyone in town “uncle” or “auntie.” 

“The core community is involved in everything because that’s how it’s always been,” she says. “There’s no big government out here.” 

Instead, a patchwork of volunteer groups have filled the void.

The volunteer-run library began as a bookshelf at the post office before residents took it upon themselves to expand it. Volunteers also helped build the first phase of the island’s clinic, and the community partially fundraised Mayne’s emergency room. Meanwhile, most firefighters on the island serve as volunteers. (They receive some extended benefits but are only paid if they can attend a call or practice.) The Japanese garden, the food bank, the recycling depot, the conservancy, the museum and the thrift store all depend on volunteers. It's normally uncontroversial work. At least, until now. 

The community centre’s AGM is typically a quick, routine affair. “It’s usually very quiet,” says Louis Vallee, who has lived on Mayne for decades. “The people who serve [on the volunteer board] generally just stay on, and that's it. It's a short meeting. Not much happens.” 

But this year’s AGM was not typical. One attendee later jokingly dubbed it the “insurrection of Mayne Island.” 

The meeting began late, at 4:55pm. What would have usually lasted about an hour pushed past three. Among the notable developments since the previous AGM in September 2020: the construction of a daycare facility on the property was well underway, a new bike rack had been installed, an indoor bench had been refinished, and “the two American chestnuts in the field flowered and produced fruit for the first time!”

After Lise McLeod, a local realtor and longtime board member who chaired the meeting, gave a report on the community centre’s finances, a flurry of questions ensued. They probed the board’s transparency and governance, and the community centre’s ties to the Mayne Island Tennis Association, whose courts sit on a corner of the centre’s property. McLeod says it felt like she was driving on the highway while cars kept trying to tailgate her and cut her off. 

Finally, later in the evening, an exasperated attendee stood up to address “the elephant in the room”—pickleball. 

***

Pickleball was invented less than 150 km south of Mayne Island, during a weekend getaway in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington—but even here it remained fairly obscure until a few years ago, when the sport’s popularity exploded. Now George Clooney plays, as do Bill Gates and Ellen Degeneres. Pickleball even made it onto an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The game combines elements of badminton, tennis, and ping pong. Typically composed of teams of two, players use paddles to hit a perforated polymer ball back and forth over a three-foot-tall net until one side reaches 11 points. 

In Canada, it was snowbirds who helped grow the sport. As of last summer, Pickleball Canada estimated around 350,000 Canadians now play. It’s one of the fastest growing sports in North America, and British Columbia leads provinces in Pickleball Canada membership. But the sport still has a long way to go before catching up with tennis, which is on its way to becoming pickleball’s proverbial foe. In 2019, Tennis Canada estimated close to three million Canadians play tennis frequently. 

The president of Pickleball BC, Walter Knecht, says the game’s accessibility is one reason why it’s taken off. It’s simple enough to learn in 15 minutes, and just about any age can pick it up. One of Knecht’s friends played into his 90s before recently hanging up the paddles. “If you can get the fork to your mouth at the dinner table, you can probably hit the ball,” he tells me over the phone. Data from Pickleball USA shows the majority of core “picklers,” as many call themselves, are 55 and older. 

The real fun, though, is in the community. It only takes about five minutes of play before everyone’s laughing, Knecht says. “We never see tennis people doing that kind of stuff. They're standing 60 feet away and pounding the ball back and forth. Just about need a telephone to talk to your opponents.”

No dogs—or pickleball—are allowed on the Mayne Island tennis courts. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily

Knecht insists the two sports are not at loggerheads. “​​We’re attempting cooperation on all fronts.” But it seems like everywhere pickleball appears, feuds soon follow as the sport’s dramatic growth puts a squeeze on public tennis courts. The noise of pickleball—the frequent echoey popping of the ball combined with the boisterous gameplay—has also rankled folks who live near pickleball courts.

The inevitable controversy first appeared in the Gulf Islands in 2016. A Gulf Islands Driftwood headline from the time reads, “Tennis-pickleball strife ignites.” In this case, pickleball and tennis players on Salt Spring Island were arguing over whether more pickleball lines should be added to a local court or all should be removed. The article also detailed allegations that a former parks and recreation commissioner “with pickleball ties” had “used information gained through his position improperly.” (The Salt Spring Island Parks and Recreation Commission firmly denied the claim.) 

Despite downplaying the conflict between tennis and pickleball players, Knecht acknowledges there are some “Hatfield and McCoy situations out there.” He continues, “Mayne Island, you might say, is one of them.”

***

By chance, the acrimonious meeting at the community centre came 10 days after Pickleball BC and Tennis British Columbia had published a joint press release, encouraging municipalities to build dedicated pickleball courts. 

“The two sports have some minor similarities, but are fundamentally very different,” the release read. For instance, up to eight pickleball courts roughly fit in the space required for two tennis courts. The sports use different nets, racquets, balls, scoring systems, and so on. In short, the organizations said sharing courts is not a solution: “Painting pickleball lines on tennis courts creates two dissatisfied sports groups, and the resulting conflict inevitably ends up at city hall.” 

Adrian Gowing, the “go-to guy” for tennis on Mayne, agrees. 

Tennis on a wood-floored court in the early 20th century. With permission of the Mayne Island Museum, 2020.05.001.44

In the spring of 2020, the Mayne Island Pickleball Club (MIPC) asked the local tennis association if they could share its two courts that sit a stone’s throw from the community centre. The tennis association, which Gowing chairs, said no. “The only thing that’s compatible with tennis and pickleball is the surface,” Gowing later tells me. Others had previously asked to use the courts for ball hockey or basketball, and the association gave them the same answer.

(Note: My father is an avid tennis player and member of the island’s tennis association, and was among the nominees for the community centre’s board at its latest AGM. However, I didn’t inherit his skill on the court; I play neither tennis nor pickleball.)

Gowing thought sharing the courts could balloon wait times and limit public access, especially if one of the courts was permanently converted for pickleball. The tennis association currently counts 50 members, while the pickleball club claimed nearly double that amount in late 2020. The pickleballers disagree with Gowing’s assessment. Last August, their club ran a seven-day survey of tennis court usage and said the courts “sat completely idle” about 60% of the time. 

The Mayne Island Pickleball Club declined an interview.  

Despite his organization’s official position—sharing is not a solution—Knecht later said that sharing courts might be the best option in a small town with limited space, like on Mayne. 

But for Gowing, how the courts came to be matters, as well. 

When the tennis association was searching for a new home in 2007, the community centre offered up a patch of land on the condition the tennis group had to fundraise, build, and manage the courts themselves, and let the public play. Crucially—though not to an extent anyone at the time could have imagined—the tennis association was given authority over how the courts would be used, though the centre can veto any usage that might interfere with its operation.

“Basically, we own everything from the soil up,” says Gowing, who personally chopped down trees to make room for the court. “We have our own bank account. We do our own fundraising. We have operated totally independently.”

The Mayne Island community centre. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily

While the tennis association did not share the space, the group did offer to help the pickleball club fundraise to build their own courts.

The club currently meets on an outdoor basketball court, now featuring pickleball lines, at the local elementary school. However, members can only play outside of school hours, and if children want to use the court, it’s game over. In an 18-page proposal, the club floated redeveloping the space and adding permanent pickleball courts early last year, but the school district didn’t go ahead with the project. The club also hasn’t had any luck with the Mayne Island Parks and Recreation Commission which told them none of the island’s parks are “suitable” for pickleball. 

The club suffered a similar fate when they approached the community centre about building courts on its property. They were told the centre already had their hands full with the construction of a daycare for the Mayne Island Early Childhood Society, still under development behind the tennis courts. As for sharing those courts, the centre’s board deferred to the tennis association, which had already turned them down. 

Undeterred, the pickleball club initiated what amounts to a pressure campaign last summer, privately contacting board members and inundating the centre with emails urging it to overrule the tennis group’s decision. Even the location of the daycare, already underway by this time, became an issue of contention. So did the makeup of the centre’s board. Months before the AGM in November, three of the board’s six directors had resigned for differing reasons. Two of the people asked to fill these seats on an interim basis also happen to sit on the board of the tennis association. Gowing, the association’s chair, was one of them.

Before the squabble had reached these heights, the centre received a letter from a pickleball player in June asking when the next AGM would be held: “It would be prudent to prepare for an election.” 

***

Gowing believes he was “a bit too naive” about what might take place at the AGM. But he still came prepared with several proxy votes from tennis club members who couldn’t attend the meeting, and he asked others to collect more.

“Unbeknownst to us, the pickleball group were doing that in spades,” Gowing tells me a few weeks after the meeting. With each group sitting on either side of the room, he says it felt like the House of Commons. “It was crazy.”

Five of the board’s six seats were up for election that night. Nine island residents threw their hats in the ring: the three interim directors and six nominations from the floor. All in all, four members with ties to the pickleball club and three members from the tennis association put their names forward. 

Adrian Gowing and his wife first bought property on Mayne Island in 1981. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily

This newfound interest in joining the board was unprecedented. “Usually, you have to beg people to serve on them,” Gowing says. “Not fight against people to serve.” Like most volunteer-run organizations, the community centre has struggled at times during the pandemic, and the board had long dreamt of more help. Louis Vallee, who plays both tennis and pickleball, suggested the centre increase the number of board seats to 10 and accept all of the nominees. “Let them volunteer!” he thought. 

Following some debate over proper procedure, that proposal was voted on. A representative from each sporting community observed the count: 53 against, 43 in favour. 

In the end, all four people associated with the pickleball club, including at least two club members, were elected. After months wrangling with the community centre over a perceived lack of support for a burgeoning racquet sport, four directors sympathetic to the pickleball cause now hold a majority on its board.

Capital Daily requested an interview with Catherine McNeill, the board’s new president and a pickleball player, but she declined the invitation. Over email, McNeill said the new board’s primary focus is “transparent governance and community engagement.” 

***

The meeting wrapped up around 8pm. As folks filed out, bickering began. Some people who once considered themselves friends stopped talking afterwards.  

“It was hostile. It was devastating. A lot of people’s feelings got hurt,” says an attendee who prefers not to be named. 

“It's a bit of a mind-boggling thing,” the person continues. “You're at that AGM, sitting there, looking around and thinking, ‘Oh, my God! There are floods and droughts and a global pandemic and climate change. People are dealing with so much stuff. And this is what is gonna be the straw that broke the camel's back in the community?’”

The issue has now divided many on the island, they say before beginning to laugh. “You have to be careful who you talk to, or what you say to whom.” 

Laurie Cooke, the centre’s former administrative coordinator, was devastated by the night’s events. 

“I’ve been hanging around here since the ’70s,” she tells me. Mayne’s natural beauty, slow pace and friendly community appealed to her, as did its get-up-and-go attitude. But she didn’t recognize that island at the AGM.

Cooke says the centre received a flood of membership applications in the days before the AGM, likely to amass votes for one or both sides. She had worked at the community centre for three years and had planned to stay in a position she loved, but shortly after that night she submitted her resignation. 

“I just felt sunk. I wanted to leave Mayne Island, and I’m not the only one who said they just don’t want to be here anymore,” she says. “I just felt the island was going to be flipped.”

In many ways, the island already has flipped—first slowly, then very quickly. 

Mayne Island has been attractive to newcomers during the pandemic. Photo: Justine Apostolopoulos / Capital Daily

Dodds, who’s now in her fifth term as a local trustee, says there are “lots of tensions” in the Islands Trust Area, which includes all of the Gulf Islands. The trust is a unique federation of local governments introduced in 1974 with a mandate “to preserve and protect the environment and unique amenities of the islands.” 

The pandemic is part of it. In the early days of COVID-19, the Gulf Islands urged visitors and even those with vacation properties to stay away, noting just how vulnerable the region’s older population is to the virus. Still, many new folks have joined the island in the past couple of years. Some, she worries, may have unrealistic expectations of how things work in small, remote towns like Mayne: “You really have to be very slow and gentle.”  

With things on pause, the newcomers also might not have received the warm welcome they would have before. Many opportunities to mingle with neighbours, like the fall fair or the Christmas Eve bonfire, have been downsized or cancelled altogether. During the first stretch of the pandemic, some especially COVID-conscious residents simply viewed newbies with an air of suspicion, worried they might be bringing the virus with them.

“If I don't recognize your face, and you're new to the island, it takes a while to assimilate into the community,” Dodds says. “That sense of community has been fractured for the moment.”

Others on the island feel it, too. “It’s not just pickleball,” the islander who wished to stay anonymous tells me. “Pickleball is a symptom, right?” 

Some in the community might not have felt included, they reasoned before referencing a proverb that may or may not have originated in Africa: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

Dodds was caught off guard by pickleball’s explosion on Mayne. She says the island clearly needs to find more land for recreational use but says that's up to the Parks and Recreation Commission, not the trust. (In a statement to the Capital Daily, Debra Bell, the commission’s chair, said it remains “open to finding a permanent home for pickleball on Mayne Island.”)

The islands are also facing some serious problems besides a lack of recreational space, Dodds adds: water scarcity, a housing crisis, surging property taxes, growing waitlists to see a doctor, uneven ferry service, rising grocery and fuel costs, and climate change, to name a few. The island’s food bank is “booming,” Dodds points out. 

One fundamental dilemma the trust currently faces: trying to find a balance between preserving the environment that attracts people to the islands while developing homes to support the growing communities. 

“So, it is a tense time,” she concludes. 

“We’re probably just on the cusp of seeing our community go one way or the other in terms of competition for who gets the prize. I hope not.”

***

Depending on who you ask, the AGM was either the opening salvo in that competition, or the end result of years of built-up tension.

When I first ask Vallee about that evening, he lets out a laugh.

“Well, what can you say about [the AGM] in a few words,” he says between pauses. “It was sort of the worst meeting I’ve ever been to.” 

But the clash seemed inevitable to him. “If that’s how you’re going to treat people, well, you’re gonna get a reaction back,” he says. “It was a democratic meeting. They belong to the membership, and they can vote.”

Vallee was president of the tennis association when the courts were built on the community centre’s property in 2008. He later quit his position over a rift with Gowing about how they should be managed. 

“It was supposed to be a public court,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be a court that the tennis people own and let the public play [on].” He doesn’t see any reason why the courts can’t be shared. 

Vallee’s getting to be one of Mayne’s “old timers,” but he wasn’t born here. Originally from Edmonton, he first came to the island on a vacation in the early 1970s. 

“I remember going through Active Pass and looking at Mayne and thinking, ‘Geez, I think I need to live here.’”

At the time, realtors on the island would advertise in the Edmonton Journal—especially in the dead of winter when Edmonton froze over and Mayne was still green. If you were interested in buying, they’d pay to fly you out, Vallee says. If you made the sale, they’d fly you back for free, too. 

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The Gulf Islands made sense to a young Vallee. Animated by the German naturalist Erich Fromm and Harry Browne’s 1973 book How I Found Freedom in An Unfree World: A Handbook for Personal Liberty, he wanted to get out of the rat race and make a life for himself in a rugged, “outlaw” area where land was cheap.

“I guess I was a bit of a rebel,” he tells me wryly. “Remember, I grew up in the ’60s.”

Vallee and his brother ended up buying “a little flop” on the island. Lots of community controversies have come and gone since then. The lesson: you’ve got to find a way to get along. 

“The person you disagree with might be the person picking up your garbage or that you’re going to ride with on the ferry or your ferry attendant or your doctor,” he says. 

Mayne’s community has a lot to offer, says Vallee, who has long been involved in local projects. But it’s not always hunky dory. 

“People think that small communities are wide open and everybody’s friendly,” he continues. “And no, it’s more like people in the elevator. People play their cards close to their chest. They don’t want everybody else to know what they’re doing.”

***

No one formally associated with the pickleball club—nor with the leadership of the community centre’s new board—spoke to Capital Daily on the record for this article.

Even in winter, Gowing and other tennis players have been regularly heading to the courts. He jokes that this might be their way of “planting the flag.” So far, the community centre hasn’t made any announcements about what can be played there. 

“Tenterhooks would be the term,” Gowing says. 

But he believes this is about more than just tennis now. After more than 40 years on the island, it’s been hard to wrap his head around this new “tribal attitude.” For him, Mayne’s culture, and the precedent for how things get done on the island, is on the line.

Update: April 8, 2022

Back and forth, back and forth—it’s a rally that refuses to end. 

Early last month, the Mayne Island Community Centre’s new president informed the local pickleball club that it had approved its request to play on the much-disputed tennis courts. A few days later, another new member of the community centre’s board reached out to the island’s tennis association, which raised the money to build the courts and has managed them for nearly 15 years. In a letter, he told its members about the centre’s plan to “revamp” the tennis group by establishing a racket sports committee. (Though the tennis association is financially and operationally independent, it originated as a “permanent standing committee” within the community centre.)

The centre aimed to find racket committee members who “believe that community resources should be made available to as wide a segment of the population as possible.” However, the letter didn’t mention that the community centre had already approved the pickleball club’s request to share the courts; instead, the board said it felt “compelled to explore expanding the use of our courts.”

The community centre’s president refused to comment when contacted by Capital Daily.

Meanwhile, the tennis association says it wasn’t consulted on these changes. In a reversal of last summer, when the pickleball club launched a spirited email campaign directed at the community centre’s former board, local tennis players and other concerned residents are now writing to the new board, voicing their displeasure. 

Adrian Gowing, the chair of the tennis association, says the group is now considering legal action if pickleball players begin to “occupy” the tennis facility. As far as he knows, this hasn’t yet happened: “All is quiet.” But he remains vigilant, and the sign that reads ‘No Pickleball!’ still hangs at the entrance to the courts. 

Gowing said it's shameful that things have reached this point. 

“We just want to carry on doing what we’ve been doing for the last 14 years."

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