Plans to renovate Harmon Field in Salisbury were approved in a near-unanimous Wicomico County Council vote -- but not before an exhaustive and passionate debate process could occur.
Enthusiastic pickleball players and supporters have besieged the county to offer dedicated courts in a central location for one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
In September, more than 100 people packed a meeting room at the Wicomico Civic Center in support of the project.
The proposed $1 million makeover at Harmon Field would include 12 pickleball courts, a second basketball court with lights, a new playground and permanent restrooms, said Steve Miller, county Recreation, Parks and Tourism Director.
The county has been assured a $700,000 state grant that does not require matching funds. Additionally, the YMCA, adjacent to Harmon Field, has offered $300,000 toward the project, and also has agreed to provide access to its parking lot and a tie-in to its storm water system.
The YMCA also will work with the county to provide a wide menu of programming options that would be open to the public, Miller said.
Harmon Field moved from Carroll Street to its current location on Church Hill Avenue in 1969. It has a softball field, a basketball court and playground, but there are no lights or permanent restrooms.
The field is now a seldom-used practice field, which has had declining usage over the past five years. The county already has more than 40 ball diamonds at its disposal, including eight at the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex in north Salisbury.
Pickleball is a sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, according to the USA Pickleball Association. It can be played indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net, using a paddle and a plastic ball with holes.
The Salisbury Pickleball Club hosts games four nights a week on shared courts with tennis players, which is not an ideal situation, according to members.
Adding dedicated courts for the sport opens up tourism opportunities for the county to host tournaments. Miller said the county ran two tournaments this year to test how much interest there is. The first one drew 114 participants from five states. A second event brought in 107 people from an even wider geographic area.
The pickleball complex appeared to be on track to approval when a last-minute concern was raised.
Wicomico County Council President Larry Dodd -- who essentially controls the council’s meeting agenda -- said the park should remain setup for baseball and fall under the direction of the Delmarva Pony League.
The Pony League has a nearby field on South Park Drive; Pony League officials said they would like to use Harmon Field to start a girls’ softball program.
Gary Ennis of the Delmarva Pony League said his group has 22 teams playing six nights on one field.
He said Pony League is designed to build the talent pool for local high school teams.
“We want to grow with girls softball,” Ennis told the council. “I love pickleball. Do I want to see pickleball there? No.”
Wayne Parsons, who identified himself as a “Pony League dad,” said the league would benefit from fielding girls teams.
“We’d like to expand what we do for the people of our county -- and do that with girls softball,” he said.
While none of the council members seemed to oppose the idea of the county building pickleball courts, location was the issue. Councilwoman Nicole Acle said the courts should be built in the area of Levin Dashiell Road, where the county has land reserved for the eventual Westside Metro Park.
“West Metro is a different conversation and a different plan,” Miller said.
Dodd and Council Vice President Joe Holloway pushed for the courts to be built at county schools or on other county property.
Miller, however, touted Harmon Field’s central location, proximity and involvement with the YMCA.
“If we build courts on the outskirts of Salisbury, we’ll reduce or eliminate the possibility for events. I think what we have put forward is the best plan,” Miller said.
“We have vast lands in Wicomico County that we can put pickleball fields on without disturbing the ballfield,” Holloway countered. “There’s nothing fiscally responsible about tearing down a perfectly good ballfield -- especially one that could be used more.”
The state money would come from Program Open Space, which is funded with a ½ of 1 percent fee the state collects on real estate transactions.
Said Councilman Bill McCain: “This is not a pickleball vs. Pony League issue. This is a pickleball-basketball proposal that we are looking at.”
He said he would personally work with Pony League to find a field where it could expand.
“We want a hub facility (for pickleball) in the core of your community where the most population is,” McCain said. “That’s why it makes sense to have this at Harmon Field. The county is not putting any capital dollars into this -- what a deal for the county.”
Dodd said, however, remained opposed to shared fields for Pony League.
“This to me is one of the most fiscally irresponsible actions this council can do,” Dodd said. “That park is probably worth $1 million. If we destroy it and build pickleball courts on it at another $1 million, now that’s another million dollars.
“What the Delmarva Pony League needs is a place. Letting them play somewhere else is not the same as giving them their own field. We could easily build the pickleball courts somewhere else. This really isn’t a good idea right now.”
When the vote was called, all council members except for Dodd -- who said he abstained -- voted to support the Harmon Field plan. The following vote to accept the YMCA contribution was unanimous.
Holloway, who had been steadfastly opposed, said: “I’m going to vote for the money.”