The mayor of Portland, Maine, cut the ribbon to Portland Community Squash’s new facility Wednesday, ceremonially opening the doors to the first public squash facility of its kind in the United States and setting the bar for grassroots efforts across the country.
The four-court, 13,000-square-foot facility is the culmination of a four-year journey. The building is a re-purposed synagogue with the courts constructed in the former sanctuary and community gathering room; classrooms are attached in a separate wing.
Portland Community Squash offers three programmatic areas: adult memberships with box leagues, ladders and drop-in court hours; after-school junior memberships that offer academic and wellness support in addition to squash; and Rally Portland—an urban leadership program following the NUSEA model—that is set to launch in the fall of 2017.
When PCS operations began last month, the four softball courts became the first international regulation courts in Maine’s largest city.
It took nearly a decade for the Portland squash community to create the demand for a public facility. Local player Greg Born first started organized play on Portland YMCA’s two American hardball courts in 2008. Born set up a Maine Squash website and since May 2010 has administered a box league every month with US Squash software. As interest and participation grew, the Y made its first racquetball court conversion in 2010 and a second in 2012.
In 2012, future PCS president Barrett Takesian, a recent Bowdoin graduate, moved to Portland and joined Born and the Y community. Barrett had worked at SquashBusters in Boston and discussed with urban squash founder Greg Zaff the idea of starting an urban program in Portland. In 2013 in partnership with the Y’s after-school programs, Takesian launched Portland Squash with a focus on youth programs. Portland Squash, soon re-branded as Portland Community Squash, had a primary goal of pursuing a facility that would house adult members, junior programs and an urban after-school program.
In 2014 and 2015, PCS developed on both the adult and junior fronts. Partnering with US Squash, Born introduced Club Locker‘s newly-launched court reservation system in addition to boxes and leagues, which continued to spike adult participation.
“First and foremost, we couldn’t have done it without the two converted racquetball courts at the YMCA,” Takesian said. “It was all the city’s squash community had for our few first years. As demand grew, the YMCA converted a second court. We had to create the demand before we started talking about a separate facility.”
By 2015, nearly 200 adults and over a hundred youth players were using the online system, to the point that the two converted courts reached what Takesian described as a “saturation point,” Demand had overwhelmed availability.
“Wisely using US Squash’s league software and adopting Club Locker’s court reservation system to build that community was essential for us,” Takesian said. “Even though we were at the YMCA, we had the infrastructure of a club, thanks to Greg’s volunteer efforts. People saw that it was organized, bought into it and participated in leagues. After a couple of years, people woke up at midnight to reserve a court, because you could only book a court two days out. The buy in was so strong.”
This model of racquetball court conversions—US Squash supports such efforts with racquetball court conversion grants—in conjunction with Club Locker technology can fill any community’s squash void, according to Takesian.
“The Club Locker technology from US Squash makes one person as effective as a full staff of squash pros,” Takesian said. “Previously, club pros were setting up matches manually, but everything is so automated now. Greg runs leagues for more than two hundred people, and does it as a volunteer on the side. It’s been an amazing tool to help us grow. Almost every city in the country has at least one racquetball court where Portland’s story can be replicated.”
In 2015 PCS began to pursue seven different development opportunities hoping to lease a building. As those opportunities fell through for various reasons, the search yielded Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh. Maine’s oldest continuously-operating synagogue, Shaarey Tphiloh had a 1950s-era building on Noyes Street in Portland’s Woodford’s Corner neighborhood. It was on the market for $1.2 million. PCS raised $1.5 million, including a $10,000 contribution from US Squash, and the building was purchased in September 2016.
“I have heard comments that this has been a profound change for our community, and that Portlanders believe this is one of the best things to happen to the city,” Born said. “We have around 125,000 people in the greater area. It’s a large, thriving city, but to have this type of activity this close to downtown is truly incredible. The positive feedback from adults, kids, parents, schools, and city and state officials has been remarkable. It’s been amazing to watch the transformation of what was already an important part of the city into a beautiful place to play squash.”
PCS already has more than 130 adults and fifty youth memberships with a goal of 200 adult and 120 youth memberships by the year’s end, which would cover all overhead and essential staff expenses.
“What Barrett, Greg and the Portland community have shown is what’s possible with passion, vision and persistence,” said Kevin Klipstein, US Squash President & CEO. “Greg planted the seed simply by organizing the community with our software and a website. Barrett has been dedicated to the concept and saw it through. PCS is a blended model that works, right from the start. Community organizing to fill the gap we have across the country in access to squash, first by converting racquetball courts, building support, then developing a dedicated center serving both adults and juniors absolutely works, and is exactly the kind of advocacy and action we need in local communities. We’re proud to have supported this from the start, both with software, and funding, and we believe it will help other communities realize they can do it too.”
The two converted racquetball courts at the Y remain a part of Portland Community Squash’s operations. In April, Maine Squash will separate from Massachusetts Squash to become its own US Squash district.
“The mission of PCS is to unite all of Portland’s diverse communities and create opportunities,” Takesian said, adding first-generation college seekers are a target demographic.
Members of the former synagogue attended the ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday. Out of multiple bids for the facility, the congregation selected PCS as the only one that would preserve and re-purpose the entire building without any demolition. The congregation perhaps knew that what had been their home since the 1950s, would remain a home to a vibrant local community and serve as an inspiration for a larger national one.
For more information on Portland Community Squash visit www.pcsquash.com. For more information on US Squash racquetball court conversion grants, visit www.ussquash.com/give/racquetball-conversion-fund.