‘Keep them local’: How proposed pickleball courts in Wabash County promote placemaking

There is no doubt pickleball is having a moment.

The sport, popular among the old and young, is played in cities and rural areas alike. However, not every community has the infrastructure to cater to the fast-growing group of players. North Manchester resident Tim McLaughlin hopes to change that in his corner of the world. 

Kaleigh MiddelkoopMcLaughlin is leading an ambitious project to bring dedicated pickleball courts to the Wabash County town. This project is personal and a labor of love. His introduction to the sport began unexpectedly at a wedding last year. A fellow guest and friend invited him to try it, and after one game he was hooked.

“I went straight home and ordered a paddle, shoes and pickleball balls,” he says. “I just played one time and knew I was going to love it. I started playing a couple times a week from that point on.”

Despite his full-time job in the insurance industry, the 51-year-old now plays multiple times a week, often traveling to Warsaw or South Whitley. Whatever the context, McLaughlin says he finds a community of people united by common themes. Pickleball is for everyone. It promotes exercise, health, wellness, and connectivity among people of all ages. 

“The main reason for its growth nationwide is the 18-to-38-year-old age bracket,” he says. “That age group now represents the largest number of pickleball players nationwide. So that's actually why it's growing so fast because it's been introduced to and is being picked up by the younger people. “

McLaughlin says this reality contrasts the image many people hold in their minds of a typical pickleball player. The sport used to be thought of as an activity primarily for retirees in Florida but that’s no longer the case. 

Courtesy Wabash County YMCA.Pickleball courts at the Wabash County YMCA.“(In light of) the current trends, within three years, I believe it'll be the sport with the highest participation (rate) in the country,” he says.

All of this to say: there’s potential to bring the sport to the masses, starting with his old backyard. McLaughlin’s frustration with the lack of local facilities led him to approach Jennifer Hotchkiss, North Manchester’s parks and recreation director. He wanted to explore the possibility of building courts in town. 

Hotchkiss was supportive but explained that the project would require private funding. This set him on a mission to raise approximately $260,000 to cover the projected costs, including excavation, asphalt, painting, fencing, nets, and lighting.

After considering various locations, the proposed site for the six new courts is the 10-acre Warvel Park. This location offers ample space, parking, and access to amenities, he explains. McLaughlin is currently in the fundraising stage, approaching local businesses and residents for support. He is also waiting to hear from a potential major sponsor, which could significantly advance the project.

Kaleigh Middelkoop“It’s been amazing how many people locally have approached me and said that they've been playing for years and they love the sport and can't wait to have courts,” he says. “It’s been neat to see the response and the positivity.”

Speaking of support, McLaughlin says his wife and some of his friends are also avid players, often joining him for games in nearby towns. He is optimistic about the project's timeline, hoping to break ground by the fall. However, he acknowledges this goal is dependent on fundraising and contractor availability.

As McLaughlin continues to fundraise, he remains hopeful that North Manchester will soon have a destination for pickleball-related recreation. According to Hotchkiss, North Manchester has only one indoor pickleball court. This significantly limits the number of people who can play. With just one court, only four players can play at a time, which is not enough given the high interest. The planned addition of six outdoor courts will allow many more residents to participate, filling a gap.

“Pickleball is so huge across the nation, and it's no different here in Wabash County,” says Hotchkiss. “That part is missing in North Manchester. We do not have any outdoor pickleball courts, so obviously there is a need for that.”

Locally, the Sorg family also has an affinity for pickleball, making it a cherished part of their downtime. They enjoy spending quality family time and hosting friends on a family friend’s property, Hileman Farms, which features 4 outdoor courts and 1 indoor pickleball court. This setup allows them to play the game they adore year-round, regardless of the weather. Whether it’s a sunny day outside or a rainy day indoors, the Sorg family and their friends can always enjoy the fun and excitement of pickleball together, strengthening their bonds and creating lasting memories.

Kaleigh MiddelkoopFriends gather to play at Hileman Farms, which features 5 private pickleball courts.According to Hotchkiss, it’s not unusual for local groups to travel 20 to 30 minutes to nearby communities to play.  

“We would like to keep them here in North Manchester, keep them local,” she says.

Warvel Park is a prime location, perfect for hosting tournaments and accommodating both local players and visitors, Hotchkiss contends. She also hopes the venue will be a means to entice new players to the game. She notes that McLaughlin has offered introduction classes at the indoor court, attracting a diverse group of participants. 

“I think if we have the courts here in town, more people are going to have the opportunity to play locally,” she says. “I suspect more ages will be interested in coming out and learning to play.”

That aligns with Wabash County YMCA CEO Dean Gogolewski’s experiences at his facility. 

“Five years ago we had a couple of courts, and about four to 10 players were regularly using it on Mondays and Wednesdays,” he says. “Now we have four dedicated courts, and we've got advanced play on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and beginner play on Tuesday and Thursday. We do tournaments, so it's really gained a lot of momentum over the last five years.”

CourtesyThe proposed courts for Warvel Park.Gogolewski attributes the increased interest to the sport’s nationwide popularity and its accessibility. It's a sport that anybody can play without having to train.

“Plus, it's a fun sport,” he says. “If you can play ping pong, you can play pickleball.”

The Y’s purpose to promote health and wellness aligns with the growth of pickleball. 

“The vision that we have is connecting individuals and empowering people for a healthier and more inclusive tomorrow,” he says. “This is a sport that's not strenuous, but it gets people active. It's very social. It connects people with other individuals in the community, and then the cardiovascular benefits are fantastic.”

Gogolewski says the Y’s programming makes it possible to cater to the gamut of abilities and experience levels. 

“We have some pretty serious athletes who try to go to regional and state-level events,” he says. “So, again, it's across the lifetime. It's for everybody, and you can go as far as you want with this.”

Kaleigh MiddelkoopFriends gather to play at Hileman Farms, which features 5 private pickleball courts.And just like the national trends, the sport's demographic has also expanded at the Y. Initially dominated by retirees, he says the courts now welcome teenagers and even younger children. 

“We're actually going to run a pickleball camp in June,” he says. “We do occasionally see kiddos that aren't in our day camp program who want to get the pickleball equipment and just go play. And they may not know the rules, but they're out there being active and playing a sport. So I think it's across the gamut (in terms of age.). Now if they can hold a racket, they're going to be able to play pickleball.”

Encouraged by these developments, Gogolewski says the Y’s leadership is exploring options for outdoor courts in the city to expand play. There’s no room to expand on site and the court surface can introduce a layer of complication. 

Kaleigh MiddelkoopFriends gather to play at Hileman Farms, which features 5 private pickleball courts.“The gym floor is not the best surface for it,” he says. “Our indoor tennis court makes a perfect, perfect spot for pickleball. So, we want to do whatever we can to expand the opportunity in Wabash.”

In the meantime, the Community Foundation of Wabash County is acting as the fiscal agent for McLaughlin’s North Manchester project, handling donations and contractor payments. Contributions can be made directly to the foundation, with "pickleball courts" noted in the memo line.

Wabash is the focus of our Partner City series underwritten by Visit Wabash County. This series captures the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.