The historic armory building at 525 N. State Street, Bellingham, is now home to Armory Pickleball, which will open for member use within the next couple of weeks.
The armory was built in 1911 and served as a hub for military logistics and defense during the First and Second World Wars. In 1953, a portion of the armory was converted into a roller rink. The building became a popular event location and a meeting place for Boy and Girl Scouts. In 1972, the National Guard sold the building to Western Washington University, that sold it again in 2018 after little use.
Owners Craig Cooper and Courtney Jenkins both went to Western in the ‘90s. Cooper said he developed a fascination with the building that persisted post-graduation.
“When I went to the Western, I would look into windows, and I would see desks stored in there,” Cooper said. “There's always been this kind of mystique around the armory, like, ‘What is that place? What are they doing with it?’”
Cooper used to be a tennis player but lost interest because he didn’t have friends who played. He wanted a social sport, and this need for an active social activity only increased when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Enter pickleball: a court game that blends elements of tennis, pingpong and racquetball with its own unique equipment and rules.
“I was looking to be able to be socially distant and be social and get outside,” Cooper said. “I remember playing my first game [of pickleball] at Cornwall. [I’ve been] totally hooked ever since and played a lot that summer.”
Winter came and Cooper quickly realized pickleball was not as appealing in the rainy Pacific Northwest outdoors. With indoor facilities still closed due to COVID-19, Cooper’s new-found passion and the old intrigue with the armory came together in the form of a dream of an indoor pickleball facility.
After weeks of trying to contact the building's owner, Cooper was finally able to pitch his idea. In some ways, it seems like the armory was made for it.
“We're close to [the] university. We're close to downtown. [The building] has these really high ceilings between the rafters the courts kind of fit perfectly,” Cooper said.
Armory Pickleball has five top-of-the-line courts. The courts are in the same part of the building as the old roller rink – some of the historic maple flooring can be seen around the courts.
On Oct. 22 and 23, Armory held an open house for the public to see the progress on the building and learn about membership. A membership at Armory entails a $120 joining fee, coupled with a membership of choice; adult, college and youth rates are offered.
One unique feature of an Armory membership is access to drop-in sessions. Pickleball is largely centered around skill level, and Cooper has made it easy to play without a predetermined group.
“You can go into the app, and you can choose to attend that level three [or] five drop-in session. You might know some people there; you might not know anyone there. And you could be playing with a 20-year-old Western student, 45-year-old financial person or 78-year-old retirees, but you're all the exact same skill set,” Cooper said.
Melissa Stratman is part of the Bellingham YMCA pickleball program. She’s been playing for 15 years and has witnessed the increase in the game’s popularity, especially among retirees.
“In mid-October when the rain came, we had a rush of members come in to reinstate their memberships to play pickleball. They were mostly retired,” Stratman said.
The Y has insurance-paid membership for seniors over 65, making it another great option for folks to play.
Cooper wants to help build this diverse pickleball community.
“We have people that have already bought memberships that are college students, all the way up until people in their 70s and 80s … all skill sets anywhere between ‘I've never played’ up until pro level,” Cooper said.
Bellingham resident Ray Pomerinke started playing pickleball about 35 years ago.
“I’ve played competitive sports since I was 8 years old and can confidently say that pickleball is the only game you can play competitively into your 80s,” Pomerinke said. “It’s a great game that can be played one-on-one if you are younger and in good shape, or as you grow older, the preferable game to play is doubles to keep the amount of running down considerably.”
He recently picked the game up again at age 70 and is a member of the Bellingham Pickleball Club. Pomerinke tries to play at least three times a week.
Amory’s current goal is to sell 200 memberships and add court time. Holiday tournaments for members are also in the works. In the long term, Cooper said he would love to add a competitive junior pickleball league and work with local PE classes.
“It's not about, you know, selling 1,000 memberships, or something like that,” Cooper said. “It's way more about building a community and seeing if we can make this thing sustainable in Bellingham.”
Zoe Wiley (she/her)
(email@example.com) is a news reporter for The Front and a combined environmental studies and journalism major at WWU. Her reporting interests include local business news, social issues, the environment and the arts. She enjoys illustration arts, photography, hiking and running.