Paddle tennis players and league members, as well as other members of the community, are expressing concern that a $15 million plan to renovate and improve The Baird in South Orange includes removing — and not replacing — the paddle tennis courts.
After facing backlash that included two petitions signed by hundreds of paddle tennis supporters, South Orange leaders convened a meeting on Jan. 16 and say that they are now working to find a new location for paddle courts in the Township.
In response to a request for comment, South Orange Trustee Karen Hilton and Trustee Walter Clarke responded that the paddle courts were initially included in plans to renovate The Baird: “However, our architects, in balancing the many competing interests of the buildings uses, determined the space they occupy could be better used for the greater benefit. We are now looking into where the courts could be sited and the costs associated with this move.”
In place of the paddle courts, an image from last fall shows landscaping and parking in place of the courts.
In addition, Hilton and Clarke wrote, “When we determine a workable new location for the paddle courts the Board of Trustees will have to vote on that just like every other facet of the Baird Center project.”
Read Hilton and Clarke’s full written response to Village Green below.
Nonetheless, paddle players and others were incensed at what they say is Township leaders’ failure to grasp the depth of support for paddle and the level of participation in South Orange. Several pointed out to Village Green that paddle is a sport that can be enjoyed by those age 65 and up — a demographic that the town is working to retain through the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages initiative — and that it is also a growing sport among youth.
Others thought the removal of the courts was just plain stupid:
One petition signer wrote, “Taking the courts away is like removing the Village Gas Lights because they aren’t very bright.”
Another wrote, “I don’t participate in this sport, but removing a year-round sport facility that is utilized by and available to anyone in the community in the interest of gaining parking spaces is the wrong choice at a time when we need to encourage more movement, not less.”
Many complained about removing a sporting activity for more parking. One petition signer wrote simply: “More Paddle less cars!”
Town leaders and supporters both pointed out that many of the signatures on the petition came from outside South Orange — with a large number from Maplewood. Supporters of paddle asked that town leaders not discount the signatures despite that fact. Wrote one, “South Orange is one of our competitors – It would be awful to lose them. With Paddle growing all over – I don’t understand why these would be taken down.” Another pointed out to Village Green that discounting Maplewood voices at a time when the towns are working to increase shared services would be short-sighted.
At the meeting on Jan. 16, reportedly more than 50 attendees expressed similar concerns to Hilton. Clarke, Director of Recreation Kate Schmidt and Township Engineer Sal Renda.
When Village Green asked Clarke if there would be an interruption in paddle tennis play while the town seeks a new location, he responded, “I’m not sure. If everything goes smoothly we are looking to vacate the Baird center about June but paddle tennis is considered a winter sport. Not knowing where the courts would land means not knowing what challenges need to be overcome to get there.”
Village Green will continue to follow this story.
Read Hilton and Clarke’s full response to Village Green here:
“The Baird Center repair and renovation project is exciting and necessary to save our treasured community building. The proposed repairs will improve our many Recreation activities for the benefit of all South Orange residents.
The building will be renovated top to bottom to address its leaky roof, woefully out of date HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems, safety concerns, IT upgrades, structural concerns, and storage needs all while attempting to maintain its historic profile and aesthetics.
As for the paddle courts, it’s not that they were not included in plans initially, they were. However our architects, in balancing the many competing interests of the buildings uses, determined the space they occupy could be better used for the greater benefit. We are now looking into where the courts could be sited and the costs associated with this move.
We called the Wednesday night meeting to hear directly input from the paddle tennis community, and appreciated that so many came out to express their views, South Orange residents as well as a significant number of Maplewood residents.
When we determine a workable new location for the paddle courts the Board of Trustees will have to vote on that just like every other facet of the Baird Center project.
The total costs for the Baird project are projected at approximately $15 million which would be paid for through our capital budget. This project was started in 2016, at which time we authorized a limited amount of capital funds. Through this funding, and state grants, we made improvements to the front porch and entrance as well as the first floor restrooms. We are exploring every funding opportunity available to minimize the tax burden on our residents.
The Village and our architects are now preparing final designs and construction plans for the building, and anticipate beginning construction in the last quarter of 2019. The Recreation Department is running limited programming in the building until the end of June.”
Karen Hartshorn Hilton & Walter Clarke
South Orange Village Trustees
See plan for The Baird that was presented to South Orange Village Trustees last fall:
[Full disclosure: This reporter’s husband is a paddle tennis player and league participant.]