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Pickleball ‘Caught in a Pickle’

Photo by Jack Kiyonaga

The $1.69 billion 2025 Maui County budget includes funding for a variety of Molokai projects — from suicide prevention programs, to the Molokai Hunting Club, to the MEO bus. There was, however, one project not in the county plan that raised more concerns than any other: pickleball.

Molokai’s pickleball participation has exploded in the past six months, with participants estimating that up to 300 Molokai residents now play the sport. The quick-growing sport has gained popularity with Molokai kupuna in particular, who use the low-impact game to exercise and socialize.

“I’m going to be 77 and I’m still playing,” said Clay Ching. “This is something for our kupuna. It’s an awesome sport.”

With only two public tennis courts for the whole island, pickleballers have had to re-purpose tennis courts and contend with cracks and ruts in the surface. These deteriorated courts have led to injuries amongst players. Also, with the tennis courts at Molokai High School in need of repairs as well, pickleball players and the high school tennis team have had to share the two courts. Now, Molokai pickleball fans are asking for repairs to be made.

“It sounds silly, but it’s not,” said Camie Kimball at the April 15 Maui County budget meeting at the Mitchell Pauole Center. “I’m furious. It’s horrendous. It’s horrible. Molokai deserves better than that.”

While the Kaunakakai tennis courts are a Maui County facility, they are not owned by the county. The land is owned by Molokai Properties Limited (MPL), also known as Molokai Ranch – one of the 10 largest landowners in the state. Maui County had an agreement with MPL to lease the land for $1 per year, explained MPL General Manager Todd Svetin, until 2015 when that lease agreement ended. MPL wanted to renegotiate the terms of the lease back in 2008, but a legal settlement with the county extended the 1$ a year lease until 2015.

Without a long term lease, the county won’t invest money into fixing the tennis courts, or convert them into combo tennis-pickleball courts, explained County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

“It’s not in the budget and I’m not going to put it in,” said Rawlins-Fernandez. “We’re focusing on Lahaina redevelopment right now.”

According to Rawlins-Fernandez, construction costs play a factor in this decision as well. An estimate from several years ago to redo the courts was $2 million, with Rawlins-Fernandez approximating that construction costs have almost tripled since the Maui fires.

MPL has been for sale since 2017, and as such is “somewhat adverse to longer term leases,” explained Svetin.

However, there is a proposal for the county to acquire the courts for free.

“MPL has been trying to give those parks to the county,” said Svetin.

Svetin explained that MPL proposed years ago, during the Arakawa mayoral administration, to gift the county the land for the tennis courts. The land gift would come with another, somewhat less attractive, gift as well though – the MPL right-of-ways on the west end.

“MPL has been looking to work out an arrangement with the county to dedicate roads and provide land to the county, and included those parks as part of the proposal,” explained Svetin.

The right-of-ways in question would require millions of dollars in repair costs.

“The roads require an upgrade to county standard,” said Svetin. But, he explained “there’s funding available from public agencies to make improvements that private companies don’t have. There wouldn’t be any cost to [the county] as a purchase price.”

Svetin explained that even if the county doesn’t take over the parks, MPL would allow them or a community task force to make repairs to the tennis court facility. Although, Svetin argued, county ownership of the facilities would make the most sense for the community.

“The parks are important to everybody in the community,” he said. “My kids use them, other kids use them, and how do you keep that forever? That’d be the county owning them.”

While the MPL proposal is still up for review from the mayor’s office, scores of Molokai residents of all ages continue to make use of the courts – which in several cases has led to injury.

Both Rawlins-Fernandez and Svetin agreed that if the courts aren’t safe, then without repairs, the courts could suffer the same fate as the closed skateboard park. The skate park sits dejected, just yards away on the same MPL parcel as the tennis courts. It has been closed for years.

For now, the tennis courts are stuck as a negotiation between the two entities.

“The pickleball courts might be caught in the middle,” said Svetin. “Caught in a pickle.”


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