City To Consider Expanding Downtown Volleyball Courts
By Beth Milligan | Jan. 6, 2022
Delays in a planned project to replace the sand at the six bayside volleyball courts in downtown Traverse City could offer a silver lining for the city's Parks and Recreation department: the opportunity to revisit a past proposal to add two new more courts to the site, potentially tackling both projects later this year. Volleyball players say new courts would help alleviate the intense competition for playing space in the summer among leagues and recreational users, with nearly 700 local players using the courts on a weekly basis.
Parks and Recreation commissioners will consider a proposal to add two more courts directly to the west of the existing six volleyball courts at their 6:30pm meeting tonight (Thursday) at the Governmental Center. Mark Wagner, the facilitator of the city's recreational beach volleyball league, previously broached the idea of expanding the courts with the commission after witnessing a steady increase in usage since 2014. The league started out with nine teams and 36 players in 2014, expanding each of the last eight years to reach 44 teams and 167 players in 2021. Another user group, the Northshore Volleyball Club, offers instruction and tournaments on the courts and increased its membership from 30 players in 2018 to 130 players in 2021.
According to Wagner, nearly 700 local volleyball players use the current six courts on a weekly basis each summer. "For nearly three months of the beach volleyball season, the courts are at full capacity for three or more hours each weeknight as available daylight permits," Wagner wrote to Parks and Recreation commissioners. "On any given weeknight during June, July, and August, there are in excess of 200 players that compete for playing time on the current six courts." The city league has a self-imposed rule of using a maximum three courts on any night, leaving the other three courts for non-league players. Even then, Wagner says there can still be hard feelings when he has to ask non-league players to leave the league courts when games get underway.
"I'm down there three times a week for 10, 11, 12 weeks every year," Wagner says. "All six courts are fully utilized each night. People are often waiting to use a court from five to eight at night. When I go there to help facilitate the league, I often have to ask people to get off the (league) courts. People are usually understanding, but every now and then it gets a little tense." Wagner says the local demand is such that 60-80 skilled players "have been displaced over the past few years due to overcrowding on the beach courts," some resorting to constructing private courts at significant cost. The lack of beach court space also forced the Grand Traverse Social Club to run its summer volleyball program on grass fields at the Civic Center using five temporary courts that were set up and broken down twice a week, according to Wagner.
When Wagner last appeared before Parks and Recreation in 2020 to discuss a proposal to add two new courts, it was bundled with a request to replace the sand on the existing six courts. The current sand is of an "inferior grade" that is coarser and has a larger aggregate than sand found at either West End or Clinch Park beaches, according to a steering committee that worked with Parks and Recreation to identify court improvements. 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. Parks and Recreation commissioners were divided on the proposal to add more courts, with some – such as Shawn Winter, now the city's planning director – expressing support for the plan and believing it would benefit the community and others voicing concerns about costs and sacrificing more park green space to courts. The board ultimately voted to recommend approval of the sand replacement project to city commissioners at an estimated cost of $22,500, but declined to support the court expansion.
The sand replacement project was slated to take place in spring 2021. However, project hurdles including pandemic-related delays and the departure of Parks and Recreation Superintendent Derek Melville ultimately pushed the project back. At the same time last year, new members joined the Parks and Recreation board who expressed interest in revisiting the court expansion, with some existing commissioners also willing to reconsider the idea. New Parks and Recreation Superintendent Michelle Hunt, who took over that position in the fall, says that if the city considers including the sand replacement in the upcoming 2022-23 fiscal budget – which would typically be approved in June and go into effect July 1 – "it makes sense" for commissioners to also consider the court expansion now so the projects could be bundled into one request-for-proposal (RFP). "I think from a cost perspective, if we do want to have these two new courts, it'd be more cost-effective if we know what we need and could get it all done at once," she says.
If Parks and Recreation commissioners are supportive of adding two new courts, the proposal would next go to city commissioners for approval, with the final hurdle being getting project funds allocated in the approved city budget in June. If the project is a go, the city would likely avoid summer work at the volleyball courts, Hunt says, but could potentially start work in the fall. "I think it's possible to get something started this calendar year," she says. Hunt acknowledges some park users prize open green space and could have "a feeling of loss" from expanding the volleyball courts, but notes there is generally so much open space in that area that "I don't think we're at risk of losing that." Hunt says the city has a "great appreciation for the activity that goes on" at the volleyball courts among the dedicated community of players. "When there's interest and a developed group (connected to a park project), it's important to consider that," she says.
Even more future potential improvements could be ahead for the volleyball courts. The city's Parks and Recreation master plan calls for improvements in fiscal year 2024-25 that include a retaining wall, bathrooms, grills, and a spectator seating area. Restrooms could provide a benefit as a "middle location" for visitors downtown between the West End and Clinch Park facilities, Hunt says. "It's a longer-term goal that could benefit other types of users, like people on the TART Trail or at the beach or boaters," she says, adding that the city plans to first tackle improving the West End bathhouse before focusing on volleyball court restrooms.Comment