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O'Leary Park facility to be renovated into pickleball-only complex as East Grand Forks embraces the sport's boom

The complex will be resurfaced next month and will now have eight permanent courts.

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The current pickleball courts at O'Leary Park in East Grand Forks photographed on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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Reid Huttunen knows what to expect when he drives by O'Leary Park during summer nights.

The East Grand Forks site, once home to three tennis courts and a practice wall, is now routinely filled with pickleball players.

"It's every night of the week," said Huttunen, the superintendent of East Grand Forks Parks and Recreation. "We love to see that. That's what we want in our park facilities is to see people at them and using them. It makes it a heck of a lot more exciting to invest in those when you know they're going to get used a lot."

That's why East Grand Forks Parks and Recreation will use its annual $45,000 grant from Altru to go all-in on pickleball at O'Leary Park, which is located adjacent to the VFW and Blue Line hockey arenas.

Next month, for the first time, the entire complex will be permanent pickleball courts.

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East Grand Forks will use the grant money to resurface the complex, turn it into eight permanent courts separated by new fencing, paint it and potentially to add benches and signage, upgrading what is already the largest outdoor pickleball venue in the area.

"I think the group of people that play pickleball -- being such a wide, vast range of ages and genders -- it's really one of those sports that is an entire community sport," Huttunen said. "You can go there on any given night, and you'll see people from their 20s to their 80s. It meets the mission really well of promoting health, and that's what Altru was looking for -- finding a way to benefit and promote health and wellness. It aligns with the mission of our partnership."

Grand Forks Pickleball Club president Steve Scholand said he learned about the resurfacing project this winter when Huttunen called him.

"We started a dialogue last summer," Scholand said. "We started the conversation by asking how we can help. We don't have much for funds. We're non-profit. But we're willing to labor. All of the sudden, Reid called me up this winter all excited and said he couldn't think of a better way to spend the grant money than to resurface the pickleball courts.

"It is tremendous. We are really thrilled."

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Pickeball players gather at the O'Leary Park courts in East Grand Forks on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

A booming scene

The sport is booming in Greater Grand Forks, like many places around the country.

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Ten years ago, local pickleball player Myron Johnson successfully lobbied Dave Aker of the East Grand Forks Parks and Recreation office to get rid of the tennis backboard at O'Leary Park and install two pickleball courts. Johnson then went to the Herald and KNOX radio, offering free lessons to anyone who wanted to learn and try the sport. That first summer, only three people joined him.

But within a couple of years, those two original courts were filled often enough that East Grand Forks painted pickleball lines on one of the tennis courts to allow players to bring portable nets and play on as many as four courts.

In 2018, East Grand Forks turned the O'Leary facility into six permanent pickleball courts -- four of them painted on top of the old tennis courts -- and kept just one tennis court.

That tennis court, which isn't often used, will now be gone.

"We hardly ever see people playing on it," said Scholand, who noted there are still four tennis courts at Senior High and four at Central Middle School.

O'Leary Park will now have eight pickleball courts. On the North Dakota side, Grand Forks has two pickleball courts at Abbott Complex and two at Symington Park.

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Pickleball courts at O'Leary Park in East Grand Forks, Minn., photographed on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

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Wide range of players

The Grand Cities Pickleball Club has seen a sharp rise in players both during their traditional nights of open play -- 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 4-6 p.m. Sundays -- as well as the two tournaments it hosts per year.

Last weekend, the Grand Cities Pickleball Club hosted their annual indoor tournament at Blue Line Arena. It attracted 132 players from at least five different states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington).

It shattered the previous record for its indoor tournament, a notable feat considering Canadians usually populate Grand Forks tournaments and they were unable to come because of the border closing.

Participants ranged from the world's No. 18-ranked golfer, Amy Olson, who was one shot from winning the U.S. Open last year to several players in their 70s. Olson and her husband, Grant, a former North Dakota State linebacker, won the top division of mixed doubles.

Johnson, who launched the pickleball scene in Greater Grand Forks a decade ago, is now 73 years old, and still excelling on the court. He finished second in the 60-plus mixed doubles and men's doubles divisions.

When the club hosts its next tournament, Aug. 6-8, it will be played on the revamped courts.

"We're really happy the club has wanted to make those courts a home," Huttunen said. "After putting in the first few courts, it seems like it has just boomed."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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