Anthony DeJesus wasn’t sure his bounce house business at TownMall of Westminster, The Fun & Fit Factory, was going to survive after the coronavirus pandemic drove away a bunch of customers. He and his partners already shut down the arcade BattleGround, and his corner store near McDaniel College saw fewer customers due to the coronavirus.
But in the fall of 2020, the Factory started to bounce back after a man came by looking for a place to play pickleball.
The Fun & Fit Factory is no longer just a place for kids to play, now people of all ages can have a few matches on one of the five courts recently added inside.
DeJesus, of Westminster, took over the businesses nearly four years ago. It was called Paradise of Fun where kids could also bounce around before DeJesus was handed the keys. He said it took a couple of years to get the place up and going but when it did, business was good. He would have about 25 to 30 parties a month with 200 kids in the 20,000 square feet of space. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, DeJesus saw less people and hosted less parties.
A few people still used the space. He rented it to cheerleading teams to practice. “It does OK, but it doesn’t bring in the money that pickleball brings in,” he said.
When a man walked in talking about pickleball, DeJesus said “that’s when everything got better.”
John Ebeling, who is part of a pickleball group in New Windsor, said they were looking for an indoor space to play once the temperature started to drop. The spaces they used in the past were not available.
“There’s a lot of empty spaces in the mall these days,” he said he remembered thinking.
He floated around, looked at stores like Sears, talked to managers and eventually came across The Fun & Fit Factory.
“That could work for us,” he recalled thinking.
Ebeling said he had seen the place before but never went inside. He saw an empty area for basketball and even more space around the corner. Perfect for pickleball courts.
“I never heard of no pickleball,” DeJesus said, adding that Ebeling told him to look it up on YouTube.
“It’s the biggest growing sport in the country,” Ebeling said in an interview. “Hands down, it’s huge.”
He said there are about 100 people in the area who play, but not as much lately due to the ongoing pandemic. They first started in October and had less than 10 people. Lately, about 25 people can be found playing at the Factory on Sundays and Thursdays.
Ebeling said they wear masks and the big space keeps them spread out from one another. None of the participants, who are mostly older, have transmitted the virus to one another.
“So we’ve been, knock on wood, lucky,” he said.
Although pickleball is popular among seniors, Ebeling said the number of younger participants is growing. The youngest person playing in his group is around 25 while the oldest is close to 90. Movements are small, he said, and there isn’t a lot of running. He also described it as a social game because players are close enough to chat.
He said they could go back outside in the spring but will have a place to go back to when it’s too hot or if it rains. If the game grows, they could develop a league. He added later that he hopes Westminster’s Recreation and Parks Department, which is seeking input from the public for new additions to Wakefield Valley Park, will add pickleball courts.
Ebeling said pickleball at The Fun & Fit Factory worked out well for him and DeJesus.
“It’s a win-win for both of us,” Ebeling said.
DeJesus said he and Ebeling now joke about their first encounter.
“I’m glad we took a chance,” he said.
When he watched a video of pickleball on YouTube, he said it was interesting. He put two courts down, leased more space and added three more. He said he’s willing to add more if he has to.
“I’ll knock down walls, I’ll do whatever it takes to get people here,” he said.
Pickleball hasn’t brought DeJesus back financially to where he was before the pandemic but it certainly helped. He said people who are interested can come by. DeJesus took up the sport himself. It was the first time he has been active in years and he lost nearly 10 pounds from playing.
“And I’m not too bad at it either,” the 37-year-old added.