By Barrett Takesian, President at Portland Community Squash
Portland adults wake up at midnight to book courts online and junior clinics pack eight students (sometimes more) onto courts for lessons. The demand for squash is high, but so far growth has been limited. Myself and others, as founders of Portland Community Squash (PCS), saw this struggle as a unique opportunity to bring squash-playing Portlanders together and build a facility that would accommodate the growing level of interest—and do away with those midnight alarms and overbooked classes for good.
Portland is the largest city in Maine—a population of a little over 66, 000—yet we don’t have a single international squash court. The squash community in Portland has considered building courts on several occasions, although plans have never come to fruition before now—largely because funds for a squash club were hard to find in a state that doesn’t know the sport exists. But a recent surge in demand—due to expanded league activity, drop-in clinics, and youth programming—and our proposition for a “community squash” model, has turned our most recent efforts into front-page news in Portland, and squash communities across the country.
PCS first met with the leadership from SquashBusters—the first urban squash program of its kind, founded by Greg Zaff in 1995—and discussed the viability of a like-minded program of our own in Portland. Once the PCS steering committee decided to pursue bringing an urban squash program—Rally Portland—to Maine, endorsements trickled in from local philanthropists, Portland’s Mayor, the local colleges, and the superintendent of the Portland schools.
Teddy Stoecklein, a future member of PCS, works for VIA Agency, an advertising agency that is fully invested in the PCS mission.
“Without question squash should be an Olympic sport. Not only will a facility like PCS help Portland, but it serves as a model for other cities, and ultimately the sport itself, ” Stoecklein said. “At VIA, we have over a dozen players, so we’re all in. We’re not only giving our time now; we’re looking forward to volunteering with the young students, who will soon call PCS home.”
Operating a new facility is expensive, and to cover these costs we knew we needed a solid membership base. Additionally, the community squash model also provides a viable business plan that can cover the operating expenses of the facility without the need for heavy annual fundraising. We chose to incorporate as a 501c3, so that we could fund-raise to support our urban and junior squash programs and to ensure that all revenue generated by our members goes back into strengthening the whole organization.
Inspired by Greg Born, creator of mainesquash.com, and responsible for introducing many in the Maine community to squash, helped a group of fifty players grow to 200, using just two converted racquetball courts and two American courts to do it. Born fostered the growth in the adult community over a five year period, using a box league on the US Squash website and a winter league consisting of nine-person teams competing on Monday nights in the winter.
Adult demand is crucial to jump-start a squash club, but a strong junior league is the best way to grow. To prove junior demand, PCS went into a sixth grade gym class at King Middle School, which serves students in downtown Portland, with a box of squash racquets; there are 510 students, grades 6-8. After a short video and a half-hour for the kids to hit squash balls around, we asked the 120 sixth graders to close their eyes and raise their hands if they were interested in trying the sport at the YMCA. Every hand went up. Of those 120 students, nearly half came to the courts for free clinics, and thirty-five students stayed with squash for the entire year.
Rally Portland, the urban squash portion of PCS’s “community model, ” will serve students like Brandin Duclos, a fourth grader that lives in the Bayside neighborhood, less than a mile from PCS’s future facility, where 55% of families live beneath the poverty line.
Sklyer Spaulding, a future junior player in the PCS program, is a seventh grader at the Waynflete School. Skyler is fortunate enough to train with Marilu Fortson at Bowdoin College once a week. Remarkably, with infrequent match opportunities and few players to train with, Skyler has achieved a top-fifty national ranking in her age division. With the formation of a junior squash league in Portland, many students from the greater Portland area will be able to join a team at PCS, practice twice a week, and compete in matches against other PCS teams on the weekends. Between our staff and the help of members that volunteer with the junior teams, PCS will be instrumental in helping students to compete on the national stage and eventually for top universities.
Justin Alfond, the minority speaker of the Maine State Senate, approached PCS about incorporating our squash courts into a planned extension of his successful bowling facility—Bayside Bowl— in downtown Portland. PCS is now raising capital to pay for the tenant improvements and the squash courts. The new facility is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2015 and will feature locker rooms, youth changing rooms, a full gym, a classroom, an office, eight singles courts, and a doubles court—PCS will be the second urban squash program to have a doubles court. (MetroSquash in Chicago was the first.)
In cities across the country, squash communities are often separated by different venues. School teams, urban squash programs, and private clubs rarely come into contact with one another. At PCS, by bringing all these groups together, we can change the way that squash is accessed, enjoyed and perceived. By meeting a growing demand in a growing city, we can help give our kids a better shot.