At the Stamford Town Center Mall the space that was formerly home to Saks Fifth Avenue and then Saks OFF 5th is being reimagined in phases by Pickleball America as something of a mecca for pickleball enthusiasts.
“Macy’s and Barnes & Noble are still here. We’re the third spoke,” said Jay Waldner, one of the owners of Pickleball America, who along with Jay Ross gave a recent tour of the facility.
“Over the course of a year 600,000 people come here,” Waldner said.
In a bold move, Pickleball America committed to 45,000 square feet in the flagging mall, and the gamble on the popular sport seems to have been timed just right.
“We’re in the middle of a boom, and this space had been vacant,” Waldner said.
With 30 ft between floor to ceiling columns, Waldner said the openings are perfectly spaced for pickleball courts.
“And there’s also a lot of amenity space,” Ross said. “Our model has ‘the hang-out factor.'”
Waldner said the previous Saturday a father and son played backgammon for several hours. “They didn’t play pickleball, they just enjoyed the vibe,” he said. “And last weekend, one gentleman just sat on the couch reading a book.”
But the draw is pickleball, after all, and it has its benefits.
“Pickleball is relatively easy to learn,” Mr. Ross said. “Someone who has never played can be off and running quickly.”
With pickleball’s popularity exploding during the pandemic, towns across the country have been challenged to accommodate the insatiable demand for courts.
In Greenwich, the Parks & Recreation Dept responded to the pleas of pickleball enthusiasts by re-lining existing tennis courts in Cristiano Park, only to get complaints from neighbors about the constant pings echoing. And then there’s the problem of pickleball players using the limited on-street parking.
Minutes away from Greenwich, Pickleball America not only has abundant courts, but offers a non-weather dependent option for play.
“A lot of Greenwich people come here,” Ross said. “They have a lot of pickleball groups – some have 50, some have 100 players. They love the idea of being indoors.”
“It never rains in Pickleball America,” Waldner said. “Last Saturday we probably had 200 to 300 people.”
Waldner said some people play for two hours during a visit – some even play for three hours.
As for the pinging, Mr. Ross said at Pickleball America the noise is absorbed.
“You don’t hear it and it’s not an annoying sound. No one is complaining.”
Not only is the noise absorbed, but the indoor courts are not re-striped tennis courts; they offer USTA surfaces.
“The ball bounces just right,” Mr. Ross said. “And we can host national pickleball events here.”
The vast space features moveable bleachers, and seating areas made cozy with vintage leather club chairs, high top tables with board games and magazines.
On one end there is a long wooden bar with a feel that is distinctly Brooklyn. The day we visited the versatile amenity space featured pool tables set up under large screen TVs. On the bar were nostalgic games like Rock ‘Em Sock Em Robots.
The space is so vast and versatile – pickleball nets and poles come down easily – that the space can be set up for anything from parties and fundraisers to antique shows and corporate team building events.
“You have all these people who like it here and want to come back with their friends or their company – they’ll bring in 40-60 people and spread out in the big amenity space, to play ping pong or air hockey,” Waldner said. “Pickleball is great for team building. It’s huge. You get two pros and bring people who haven’t played before.”
And, unlike a male-centric golf outing, which of course is weather dependent, a charity event at Pickleball America is inclusive.
“You can include spectators, have lunch, watch and be part of the silent auction,” Ross said. “In summer we have good air conditioning, and it’s safe.”
Ross and Waldner said locally there is a demand for large event venues, and that in turn has economic benefits for Stamford.
“We’re feeding the community – restaurants and hotels are benefiting,” Waldner said.
Pickleball America offers memberships that appeal to regular players, including unlimited reservations and priority sign-ups for clinics, events and tournaments.
“We’re anti-country club. No collared shirts required,” Waldner said. “Wear your jeans or shorts. You come here and relax, put your feet up and wear your hat backward. We offer open play, which is great, just show up and play.”
Other benefits in the works for members will include a co-working lounge with private stations where members will be able to have a coffee, open their email or launch a Zoom meeting.
Re-Anchoring the Mall
“It’s a great anchor for other businesses,” said Charlie Juergens, a Greenwich resident who works for Pickleball America as one of its brand ambassadors. Juergens said a massage business and pilates studio were set to open next door in the mall soon.
“They are feeding off our success here, and the number of leases in the mall are being created off us. They say we’ll open after pickleball for their carry over,” Waldner said. “It’s a benefit to us, and the mall likes us and stores getting filled.
With the City of Stamford adding residential high-rises like Urby and The Smyth, Pickleball America is responding to changes in lifestyle, and, as the mall once was, becoming a social hub.
The new approach has inspired a new vocabulary, starting with pickle-tainment.
Then there are the activities that pair nicely with the sport. Think pickle and brunch, pickle and pilates, pickle and ping pong, pickle and a pint.
On Thursday, November 9 from 6:00-9:00pm, Greenwich-based non profit, Barbara’s House (formerly CCI) is hosting a pickleball social fundraiser at Pickleball America, including professionally-led clinics, a round-robin tournament, and exhibition games. Light fare and drink served. All levels and non-players welcome. All proceeds go to Barbara’s House programs.
Pickleball America is located at 140 Atlantic Street in the heart of downtown Stamford.
Brand Ambassador Charlie Juergens from Greenwich handles corporate and group membership and sales for parties and corporate team building events. Reach him at [email protected]