Traverse City News and Events

City Eyes Volleyball Court Upgrades

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 9, 2020

Traverse City Parks and Recreation commissioners are considering plans to upgrade the city’s volleyball courts at West End Park to accommodate growing demand – a project that could potentially include adding two more courts, replacing the beach sand, and eventually adding a permanent restroom facility, rinse stations, and players/spectator seating.

Parks and Recreation commissioners discussed the proposal at both their July 9 and August 6 meetings and could take action on the plan at their September 3 meeting. Usage of the six bayside volleyball courts has spiked since 2014, when Parks and Recreation approved a citizen proposal to start a recreational beach volleyball league operated by the city department. The league started out with nine teams and 36 players in 2014, expanding each of the last six years to reach 34 teams and 100 players in 2020. Another user group, the Northshore Volleyball Club, offers instruction and tournaments on the courts and has increased its membership from 30 players in 2018 to 110 players this year.

“Participation in the sport of beach volleyball has really taken off, from my observation,” Mark Wagner, the facilitator of the city’s volleyball league, told Parks and Recreation commissioners Thursday. While the league commits to only using three courts on any given night – keeping the three other courts open for free play by the public – Wagner said demand is such that often “all six courts are in use and there are people waiting to play.” The beach volleyball season typically begins in mid-May and continues until the end of September, with the highest demand found in the two weeks leading up to and the two weeks following the National Cherry Festival.

Wagner and other user group representatives are part of a steering committee working with Parks and Recreation to identify improvements to the courts. In addition to court capacity, the existing sand on the volleyball courts is an “inferior grade of sand” similar to masonry sand, according to the steering committee. The sand is coarser and has a larger aggregate than sand found at either West End or Clinch Park beaches. The sharp material often scrapes players’ knees, shins, and feet, and – because of its darker color – holds heat to greater degrees than other types of sand. Measurements on a 78-degree summer day showed the surface temperature of sand at Clinch Park Beach reaching 104 degrees and West End Beach 100 degrees, while the volleyball courts hit 124 degrees. The blistering temperature “often renders (the courts) unplayable during afternoon hours,” according to the steering committee. While the group said Traverse City is home to the "highest regional concentration of high-level volleyball players, junior or adult, indoors and out," the combination of limited courts, high surface temperatures, and coarse sand "have made it difficult to host many tournaments in Traverse City" despite the sport's increasing popularity.

Replacing the sand in all six courts with more sport-appropriate sand and constructing two new courts directly west of the existing courts is estimated to cost approximately $50,000. Steering committee members are hopeful the project could be paid for through the city’s Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund – a special fund renewed by residents in 2019 that uses money from oil and gas royalties to pay for city park projects. While there are several projects already lined up to tap that fund, West End was also identified as a potential upgrade site – though targeted improvements were initially listed as bathrooms and/or a new bathhouse, not volleyball court upgrades.

Project costs were a key discussion point among Parks and Recreation commissioners, some of whom advocated for having user groups pay for volleyball court improvements instead of the city. However, the steering committee countered that users have primarily shouldered the courts’ costs for decades, and are still contributing revenues through league fees today. For the majority of West End’s history, private user groups created and maintained the courts. The Traverse Area Volleyball Association (TAVA) approached the city in the late 1980s for permission to build a single court next to the former EF Hutton building, with TAVA constructing, managing, and paying for the court. In exchange for use of city land, TAVA agreed to allow city residents to use the court when it was not occupied for league play.

TAVA approached the city a few years later to add three more courts, then expanded again to six courts in 1993. TAVA used its own funding to build and maintain the courts and was responsible for stewarding them for 30 years. The city only recently took over managing the courts from TAVA in 2018. The steering committee noted that league registration fees last year generated $8,785, with revenue used to pay for the annual replacement of two nets and two volleyballs, league t-shirt prize awards, and administrative costs. League revenues also paid for replacing fencing along the southern edge of the courts and installing permanent court boundary lines on four courts, with additional fencing soon planned to be installed along the courts’ northern edge. Averaging 33 teams per year, the league will generate an estimated $3,300 per year in profits after expenses – funds the group said could be applied to paying back improvements over time.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Shawn Winter said he was generally supportive of the project and didn’t think it should be solely up to players to pay for it. “I think this project would be pretty impactful. There are a lot of people that use that small concentrated space on a daily basis, so a lot of people would benefit from this improvement,” Winter said. He added: “It’s not my favorite way of looking at it that every time we want to make an improvement in the park, some user group has to come up with the money. It’s an asset that (the city is) providing.”

Other commissioners expressed concern about taking up recreational green space to build two new courts and prioritizing court improvements over other city parks in line for Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund dollars. Some said they would be willing to pay to replace the sand on the existing six courts – estimated to cost $30,000 – but hold off on building two new courts. “I feel like if we have volleyball courts, we should have quality sand in them…I’d like to find some way to at least replace the sand,” said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Scott Morey, with Vice Chair Rick Brown voicing his agreement. In that scenario, some commissioners suggested grants or private donations could pay for the above-and-beyond costs of building two new courts, with further amenities like bathrooms potentially added in the future. Parks and Recreation could also look at selling off the old sand from the courts to the city’s street department to use on winter streets, potentially recouping some project costs, Parks and Recreation Superintendent Derek Melville said.

With several commissioners absent from Thursday’s meeting, the board agreed to wait until September to consider taking action on the proposal. Melville tells The Ticker that the $50,000 “not-to-exceed” figure for the project could potentially come in at a lower price once bid out, saying he chose to “over estimate” and budget conservatively. “We’ll certainly do our best to get a grant to help support this if approved, and bid out sand to get the price,” he says. “We just need to know if it’s a supported priority (by the board) for funding before the extra legwork for more specific details is put in.”

Photo credit: Traverse City Beach Volleyball Steering Committee

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