NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Less than a week after Norfolk’s MacArthur Center Mall lost one of its more popular tenants — the Apple store — it’s gained another, whose popularity appears to be growing by the day: pickleball.
At 5:30 p.m. Thursday evening, more than 20 people could be seen either playing the game or waiting for a spot to open up on one of four 20-by-44-foot courts that sit on the blacktop, which typically hosts the outdoor ice skating rink each winter.
Described by some as a cross between tennis and ping-pong, pickleball was founded in the United States and is now played worldwide.
Played with a paddle, a plastic ball with holes and a roughly waist-height net, the USA Pickleball Association said it was designed to “be enjoyed by all ages and skill levels.”
Mary Goldburg, 60, was first introduced to the game in Key West, Florida, while visiting a friend two years ago. She instantly “fell in love with it.”
“It’s very social and it’s fun, and a lot easier on the knees than tennis,” Goldburg said.
As a Ghent resident, she became annoyed she had to travel out of downtown to find a court to play on.
In early April, she came up with an idea.
“I was driving around trying to figure out where we could put a pickleball court. Thought about the parking garage on top of Nordstrom’s,” Goldburg said. “It’s empty.”
Nordstrom closed its three-story department store in Norfolk in 2019 and plans call for turning the space into city offices in the future.
While it may sound like a stretch, Goldburg said she pitched the idea to Councilwoman Courtney Doyle, who represents the downtown area. Several days later, Goldburg was meeting with MacArthur Mall General Manager Jim Wofford on making it happen.
“I had to look it up first because I’d never heard of it,” Wofford said. “But once I did my research, I said ‘If we are going to go this route, let’s do it the right way.'”
Wofford suggested moving the courts to the ground-level ice rink plot to ensure a level surface for the courts. He then arranged for professional court markings to be painted, lighting to be turned on and spectator benches delivered — free of charge.
Wofford said in 16 years of managing the mall, he never had a sports league use the space.
“But especially a mall to be successful, you’ve got to re-invent yourself. You’ve got to get more activities you’ve got to get more events,” Wofford said.
Goldburg said starting in April a small group of eight people began to play on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. Each time, the number of people who come to play grew.
On Thursday, Goldburg pointed out several players who now play with the group, who never knew about the sport before they walked by one day.
Trey Brown, 21, was one of them. He said Goldburg saw him checking out the game and asked him if he wanted to play.
“I didn’t have on shoes, None of that. But I was still playing. I still had a good time,” Brown said. “I come back because I just know they are good people and it looks like they are having fun.”
Goldburg says “that’s what pickleball is all about.”
To thank Wofford and the MacArthur, Goldburg has since made up shirts that say “Pickleball. Making MacArthur Great Again.”
While it’s a play on former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Goldburg said, it’s more about trying to shed some positivity on the mall that has had a lot of negative headlines.
“You now we all have unfortunately have heard ‘tenant is leaving, tenant is leaving.’ Why not try to help bring people down to MacArthur center?” Goldburg said. “That’s what we want to do. We want to help make MacArthur great again.”
Goldburg said all are welcome and that the group plans to play each Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 pm and Sunday’s at 9:30 a.m. throughout the summer.