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Pickleball craze breathes new life into old downtown Minneapolis office buildings

Susan Du, Star Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

In a fever-dream phase of the pandemic, commercial real estate broker Mike Marinovich used electrical tape to draw out three pickleball courts on the sprawling second floor of his vacant downtown Minneapolis office building.

The space at 1200 Washington Av. S. had just been vacated by a supercomputing center, and Marinovich was having no luck finding a new tenant as COVID still raged. He'd get takeout and invite friends to play. Everybody was wearing N95 masks and scrambling around on the blazing white, non-conductive data center tile, balls bouncing off the computers. It was all very "apocalyptic," his wife, Kristen Marinovich, recalls, but it was how they dealt with the loneliness.

Nearly four years later, Marinovich's makeshift gathering spot has been transformed into a permanent recreation destination — the seven-court Minneapolis Pickleball Club. With more people working from home and building owners struggling to fill central business district buildings, Marinovich said it's a move that's both helping to bring people back downtown — and stabilizing his business.

"I've been in the commercial real estate and office market for almost 40 years and I've never seen it like this before," he said. "People aren't getting back into the office and employers aren't asking them to, so we pivoted, and the reception has been phenomenal."

Interest in the Minneapolis Pickleball Club, which shares the building with tenants that include the University of Minnesota's Advanced Research and Diagnostics Laboratory, has exceeded expectations. The club has signed up about 280 members in three months, including sporty senior residents of nearby condos, downtown workers and suburbanites easing their way back into the city.

One Wednesday, Jerry Baack, the CEO of Bridgewater Bank, reserved the whole club for his employees and longtime clients. They practiced their curve shots and a cracked a case of beer; the club is BYOB. Anytime they can get out of the office and team-build is good for business, Baack said, but when it comes to pickleball, there's not nearly enough court time to be had for everyone.

In 2021, the Minnesota health club chain Life Time crawled out from under a series of existential shutdowns with pickleball in mind. Its Target Center location made the controversial choice to convert one of its basketball gyms into three pickleball courts. The basketball players were skeptical, but the pickleballers were thrilled. The Minneapolis Park Board didn't have many facilities at the time, and when it came to indoor options for winter play, downtown had none.

The pickleball courts are main stage at Life Time Target Center, surrounded by a walking track and populated by enthusiastic players of all ages. Last summer when the city put on Warehouse District Live, weekend street festivals aimed at inviting positive activity back downtown, Life Time hosted pickleball in Butler Square. The company wanted to show that the suburbs' monopoly on pickleball is over, said manager Brian Opatz.

"I really am very intentionally trying to build a community and have people get to know each other, establish friendships and have more than just a casual passing relationship," said Kris Miner, the certified pro running the pickleball program at Life Time Target Center. "It's a very exciting time. A lot of people are very excited to have those facilities within walking distance of all the businesses downtown."

The chain now has 660 permanent pickleball courts nationwide, including 69 in Minnesota.

At 825 LaSalle Av., Ben Krsnak of Hempel Real Estate is constructing a pickleball court in the former Rock Bottom Brewery, which left downtown Minneapolis in 2022. The ceilings are just high enough and the columns far enough apart to make it work.


The court is part of LaSalle Plaza's amenity makeover, which will ultimately include an infrared sauna, roof deck with grills and new slate of conference rooms.

"We wanted something that would have broad appeal," Krsnak said. "The more we can have a total solution for our prospective clients, the better position we're going to be in."

Since Mark Brabec retired, he hasn't had many reasons to drive to Minneapolis. One of his daughters had been subletting an apartment in northeast Minneapolis when civil unrest broke out, and he persuaded her to move home to Excelsior. But since the Minneapolis Pickleball Club opened in December, Brabec and his friends started hanging out downtown again, dining at EaTo and Kindee Thai, and looking forward to exploring more.

"We've probably done as much in the last three months as we have in the last three years," Brabec said.

Libby Simones downsized into downtown Minneapolis a few years before the pandemic interrupted her plans for a carefree retirement. Now she feels her downtown social life is back, thanks in large part to her WhatsApp group of about 80 women pickleball players from across the metro.

"Honestly, to the person, there is no one that doesn't think that it is a superior playing environment at Minneapolis Pickleball Club," said Simones, referring to the no-glare lighting, gentle acoustics, and willingness of the Marinovich family to make adjustments based on feedback. "They're very open and receptive and friendly, and the feeling of our entire big group is that they're just wonderful to deal with."

Marinovich's stepson Miles Harmening, a California college student who built the club's business model and plans to return to Minneapolis after graduation to help run it, credits its popularity to passionate founding members who peppered local condo bulletin boards with flyers and helped create the logo.

"That's kind of the backbone of the pickleball community," he said. "The second part is people really get super excited for any new facility, and I think everyone really wants it to work."

(Star Tribune staff writer Jim Buchta contributed to this report.)

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