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A shuffleboard revival in St. Petersburg

Club members pump thousands of dollars into restoration projects at the historic Mirror Lake site
First time shuffleboard player Missa Kes, 29, St. Petersburg, front, left, shoots her disc during an open shuffle event at the club, Friday, December 6, 2019. The club has open shuffle events for the public Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights in St. Petersburg. Friday Night Shuffles are free. [SCOTT KEELER]

ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s historic shuffleboard club can be likened to the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes.

Last week, members showed off $65,000 in renovations they’d made to their clubhouse and deck. in addition, the city recently committed $220,000 for a new clubhouse roof and to waterproof its almost century-old walls.

The latest developments are in stark contrast to the club’s struggles just a few years ago, when membership had dwindled and the city-owned property was beset with code violations.

But the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, at 559 Mirror Lake Drive N, is soaring out of its doldrums and now boasts a membership of 1,407. Defying the stereotype of a retiree crowd, the club’s Friday Night Shuffle draws a mix of younger and older players, many turning up early, coolers in hand, ready to picnic and enjoy the free session under the stars.

As a speaker pumped music onto the courts, a group with a baby in a stroller and another child running alongside arrived shortly after the doors opened. Some shufflers had already snagged tables for al fresco dining. Lela Gonzales, a member of the club’s small staff, was there to greet them all. It was a light night because of First Friday gatherings downtown, volunteer John Cunningham said. During the season, from October to April, he said courts typically fill up by 7:30 p.m.

Last week Cunningham offered rudimentary tips to newcomers Paul Crawford, 34, and Missa Kes, 29. They moved to St. Petersburg “on a whim” this past summer from Minnesota, after checking out “a bunch of cities.” St. Petersburg, Crawford said, “had it all,” from warm weather to a reasonable cost of living to “a good mix of people and diversity of culture.”

St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club member and volunteer, John Cunningham, left, instructs Paul Crawford, 34, center, and Missa Kes, 29, right, both of St. Petersburg, on the rules and techniques of shuffleboard, Friday, December 6, 2019, during the club's free Friday Night Shuffle. It was the first time the couple had played the game. [SCOTT KEELER]

They discovered the Shuffleboard Club while driving past, Googled the facility, and were drawn to the popular Friday night shuffle. Also helping fuel the club’s renaissance are tourists from around the country and overseas, some enticed by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater promotions.

The city’s shuffleboard culture is an "economic driver,” Leisure services administrator Mike Jefferis said, “one of those cool, quirky events that makes us so unique.”

The club was founded in 1924 and the clubhouse built three years later in what is officially Mirror Lake Park. When the club fell on hard times in the 1990s, the city took over maintenance and management of the site, Jefferis said. The club now leases the property from the city.

Jefferis credits the club’s revival to executive director Christine Page and passionate volunteers. The club’s staff of seven — two full-time and five part-time — made it possible for the city to pull out its own workers. “The cost saving is significant,” Jefferis said, adding that the money the club contributed for renovations has helped St. Petersburg “leverage our limited capital improvement dollars.”

Page gave an update to the City Council last week, telling members that the club had spent $65,000 for renovations that included removing dark paneling from the walls of the clubhouse, restoring the plaster beneath and rewiring the space. Plywood that had covered original terrazzo courts and formed a deck for outdoor events such as weddings and other gatherings, was removed. The restored terrazzo floors, which are not used for playing, have the markings of the old courts.

Lela Gonzales, event coordinator, St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, right, chooses cues or tangs for a family before they participate in the club's free Friday Night Shuffle, Friday, December 6, 2019. The club has open shuffle events each Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday night. Friday Night Shuffles are free. [SCOTT KEELER]

Page, who was presented with the city’s Sunshine Ambassador Award for her work at the Shuffleboard Club, said she began volunteering with the group in 2005 and fell in love with the game and the ambiance of the historic buildings and courts. The club, its buildings and courts were designated a historic landmark in 1994.

Highlighting the club’s progress over the past decade, Page spoke of city projects such as the new roof over the grandstand and more recently, the addition of air conditioning in the clubhouse. Restrooms were improved in time for the club to host international championships in 2013.

This year, the club sent 16 members — the majority of the U.S. team of 25 — to the International Shuffleboard Association’s World Championship in Austria. Club treasurer Evelyn Rosetti and her husband, Alan, were on the team, which took medals by placing second and fifth in the Women’s Division and fifth and ninth in the Men’s Division. St. Petersburg hopes to host the 2023 international event.

Rosetti, who’s been a shuffler since 2013, said the sport has grown in popularity worldwide with the help of a Seminole business, Allen R. Shuffleboard. Many clubs use the company’s tangs — the long sticks used to push the biscuits, or discs — and their portable poly courts, she said.

Shuffleboard discs and cues can be seen during an open shuffle event at the club, Friday, December 6, 2019. The club has open shuffle events for the public each Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday night in St. Petersburg. Friday nights are free. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

In St. Petersburg, it’s not just the game that has become popular. The club’s premises has seen an increase in rentals. “I cry at every shuffleboard wedding,” Page said.

She has set new goals for the club, which include replacing metal windows in the clubhouse with historically accurate casement windows, and rebuilding the trellis that once covered the courts and provided much needed shade for players. She’d like to add a café and increase membership to 5,000. “We just want to fill our historic spaces and continue to be a community asset,” she said.