By Steve Hubrecht

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A Columbia Valley man is heading south –  way south — to help spread pickleball.

Invermere Pickleball Club president Ray Schoepfer, is bound for Uruguay for two and half months this spring. While he’s there he’ll do everything he can to foster the growth of his beloved sport in the country that has become his new home-away-from-home.

Schoepfer leapt to public attention last spring when he and other pickleball club members turned out at several Invermere council meetings in huge numbers pressing council to create a long term solution to the club’s ongoing search for a good quality outdoor pickleball courts in the district.

The outdoor courts are still far from a reality, but Schoepfer’s passion for pickleball is undimmed. Last fall, after years of spending shoulder seasons in sunnier parts of the U.S., Schoepfer and his partner decided to try a new snowbird destination.

“I studied my options, and studied and studied, and finally concluded that Uruguay was where I wanted to go,” Schoepfer told the Pioneer.

Uruguay may not leap immediately to mind as a sunny second home spot, but Schoepfer explained that it is rapidly becoming one, and that it is already a top travel spot for non-Uruguayan South American travellers.

The draws, according to Schoepfer, are compelling: the climate is great, the beaches are nice, the food is tasty and healthy, Uruguayans are outgoing and friendly, the infrastructure is great, the country has one of the most stable governments in Latin America, and prices, he said, are quite affordable for Canadians.

It was so pleasant that he bought a home in the seaside city of Punta del Efte during his first extended stay in October and November 2022. And, naturally, he looked into what options existed there for pickleball, reaching out to local organizers.

“They told me they’d tried, but it was hard to get it going,” he said. “I said, it’s okay, I’ll come down and I’ll be in pickleball mission mode.”

When he arrived, he found there were three main problems in Punta del Efte: pickleball equipment is very hard to find, there are few courts, and there isn’t as big an awareness of the sport among the general population as there is in Canada.

He’s keen to do what he can to remedy the situation. To that end he is heading back to Uruguay on April 7 for another two-month stay and his bringing along 36 custom made pickleball paddles, five nets, 50 balls, and plenty of pickleball court tape. The equipment was waiting to be loaded onto a boat in Miami and shipped down when Schoepfer spoke with the Pioneer last week. He has scouted out potential venues for indoor and outdoor pickleball courts in Punta del Efte and will begin talking with people as soon as he gets there, to try turn these leads into actual facilities. When not busy with all that, he’ll be giving lessons (he’s certified with the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association) and otherwise promoting the sport.

In its 2023 budget, the District of Invermere has earmarked $80,000 as being for pickleball, although there are no details contained in the plan other than the figure and the word “pickleball”. Schoepfer said he’s happy to see it as a line item, but would be happier still if there were more concrete plans, or any plans, attached to it.

“It may just be there because of the pressure from our club,” said Schoepfer. “It almost seems as though they picked a number out of the air. I can’t seem to find out anything more about it.”

Invermere chief administrative officer  (CAO) Andrew Young told the Pioneer the pickleball funding in the budget comes from the provincial resort municipality initiative. 

This program funnels money to B.C.’s 14 designated resort municipalities (Invermere and Panorama Mountain Resort are a collective one of those 14), but it must be spent on projects that enhances the local tourism economy.

“At this point we are trying to figure out how those monies can be best used,” said Young, adding that it is “too preliminary” to say what even some potential options are, as the matter has not yet been brought before council.

Schoepfer is steadfast that the best strategy for getting new outdoor pickleball courts in Invermere is to convert the existing Mount Nelson Athletic Park (MNAP) courts and to then build a separate new basketball court. 

The existing basketball court would be displaced by any conversion for pickleball at MNAP.

Schoepfer estimated the cost of building brand new pickleball courts in a yet-to-be determined location at about $150,000 to $160,000 and the cost of converting the MNAPcourts at $40,000 and then building a new basketball court at $50,000 to $70,000. This, he concluded, makes conversion both cheaper and faster.

In the meantime, the Invermere Pickleball Club is getting set to play indoors this summer at the Invermere Curling Club. Schoepfer said there’s no guarantee the club can use the space each summer indefinitely, hence the need for outdoor courts. The club is looking to add learn-to-play pickleball session and youth group. 

Interest in pickleball continues to grow quickly in Invermere, added Schoepfer. Those curious about the club can find out more at www.invermerepickleball.ca.