Growing the Game Out West: The Miracle of Salt Spring Island Tennis

Bob Moffatt, former CEO of Tennis Canada, Marjorie and Pierre sharing some stories in our orchard this past summer.

Editor’s note: Marjorie Blackwood-Schelling was born to a Canadian government official in Karachi, Pakistan. The free spirit Marj was a doubles quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, reached a WTA ranking of 48, was the Captain of Canada’s Fed Cup Team and was inducted in the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame. She lives with her husband Peter in Salt Spring Island, one of Canada’s most beautiful communities, growing wicked organic garlic. 

BY MARJORIE BLACKWOOD

A slice off the 9th tee at the Salt Spring Island Golf Course will send you out of bounds, where you can’t miss what Pierre calls the miracle of Salt Spring tennis. Two Permasteel structures connect the centre, each housing a beautiful blue Plexipave tennis court, well insulated and well-lit for play, our own Salt Spring Indoor Tennis Centre. 

This is the community where my husband Pete and I have forged a home in the final years of a long journey through tennis coaching on the West Coast.

Overhead view of the Salt Spring Indoor Tennis Centre

It is a tale of commitment, stamina, passion for the game of tennis, volunteerism, and a love of community. A couple of significant angels named Erica and Colin Ross got the ball rolling and kept it moving. Other angels joined in, and that momentum has created the Salt Spring Indoor Tennis Centre, now a community hub for seniors, adults and kids of all ages who love tennis.

Salt Spring Island’s diverse population ranges from farmers and hippies to descendants of First Nations, fishermen and foresters, and many retired professionals who have made it their home. Tennis has its rich history here, and a tight-knit group of avid players from all walks of life has always welcomed anyone with a racquet to join them at our four outdoor public courts at Portlock Park. 

Craving year around tennis, by 1989, sixty-five SSTA members chipped in $300 each as a downpayment on an unheated, one court bubble and ran it themselves at Portlock Park for sixteen years. The proviso for using the parking court for the bubble was that members had to take down and put up the drop themselves each fall and spring, which took 22 volunteers most of a day. Members had to independently manage the court bookings, fees, cleaning, and all expenses.

Some air guitar, Marjorie with the wild bunch at Portlock Park

When the bubble gasped its last breath in 2006, our angels had already begun to plan for more indoor tennis, and donations and creative fundraisers seeded a replacement fund. After several attempts, a new location was finally found at the Salt Spring Island Golf Course, and Norm Elliott, a local builder (and Angel in Waiting), was signed on to build a one-court Permasteel structure.

The Replacement fund had a remarkable $190,000 in it, but $310,000 more would be needed. A group of angels we now call the Founders personally loaned the remaining amount in varying amounts. Repayment would come from court fees collected and paid back at 1.5% interest. It was a hell of a risk to take back in the day, but Centre Court Indoors became a reality when our builder, Norm Elliott, came in for the same price to build despite a four-year delay, and it opened for play in September of 2012. 

A permanent indoor court did not take many arms twisting to get Peter and me to move to Salt Spring full time. We had always been in love with the Gulf Islands and Salt Spring, having taught clinics there over the years, and were good friends with Erica and Colin Ross, who spearheaded Centre Court Indoors. We went to work, slowly building up the adult and junior tennis programs bit by bit. Members happily ran leagues, block bookings, competitions and social play, and Centre Court took off.

The Tomorrow’s Champions junior fundraising groups

By 2018, our Angels decided there was enough demand for a second court. Success breeds success, and many more people came through with loans ranging from $25,000 to $50,000+,  with the sweet spot of being paid back with 4% interest. Through Tennis Canada, donations large and small were able to receive charitable tax receipts, and there were many local donors, one of which stands out.

Norm Elliott, the retired builder of Centre Court, donated the astonishing amount of $400,000 toward the building of Court Two, now called Elliott Court. After an initial donation of $200,000, he was so pleased with the game’s growth for island kids that he doubled his contribution!

A final shout out to Deborah Orange, another angel who and her group of amazing friends put on the best fundraiser I have ever been a part of. Its proceeds subsidized the growth of our youth tennis programs in those building years.

For five years, the Tomorrow’s Champions fundraiser brought together a mix of Vancouver and local tennis players with a group of top coaches and pro players who donated their weekend giving clinics and exhibitions.

Marjorie with our first indoor Red Ball group in 2012

There was plenty of socializing at cocktail parties, capped off by a fabulous dinner at a waterfront property on Long Harbour. Wine flowed, folks generously opened up their chequebooks, and though Covid has interrupted this event, the youth programs are now self-sustainable.

Final Notes

  • SSITC has grown to 219 adult members and 77 junior members
  • A top-notch new coach Darran Wrighton has taken over the junior and adult community tennis programs and is expanding into the schools.  Pete and I are giving our creaky old joints a break from 40 years of coaching tennis
  • The old Portlock Park bubble now has its second life as a pond liner at a local farm. All things on an island have a least two lives.
  • Another miracle, no government funding or local tax dollars were used to build the Salt Spring Indoor Tennis Centre!
  • Many of our angels can be seen floating around the courts with halos over their heads, playing tennis and enjoying the fruits of their labour. And generosity.

When you get the right mix of angels with a common purpose, miracles happen, and if you don’t do it yourself on a bit of island, it will never get done!

If you ever get to Salt Spring, bring your racquet; I’m sure we can find you a game:)

Visit:

https://clubspark.ca/saltspringtennis

ClubSpark / Salt Spring Tennis Association / Salt Spring Tennis Association (SSTA) was established in 1979 – a member of Tennis BC.

The SSTA is a vibrant, non-profit tennis club on Salt Spring Island created and operated by enthusiast volunteers, offering healthy recreation, competition and social events outdoors and at a modern indoor facility. Membership is open to all residents of BC.

clubspark.ca

 

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