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Ogden philanthropist moves pickleball tourney to Brigham City

By Cathy Mckitrick, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Aug 11, 2015
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Joh Gullo speaks to the media about his plans to move the Tournament of Champions pickle ball tournament from Ogden to Brigham City on Tuesday, August 11, 2015. Gullo, who has been an advocate for pickleball in Ogden, said he was leaving because he was disappointed with the city administration.

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Joh Gullo speaks to the media about his plans to move the Tournament of Champions pickle ball tournament from Ogden to Brigham City on Tuesday, August 11, 2015. Gullo, who has been an advocate for pickleball in Ogden, said he was leaving because he was disappointed with the city administration.

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Colby Leatham, left, and Curtis Wahlen compete in the mens doubles 3.0 championship game in the Dennis Forbes Memorial Pickleball Tournament in Ogden on Friday, July, 19, 2013. Leatham and Wahlen went on to win the match.

OGDEN — Philanthropist John Gullo announced Tuesday he’s moving his Pickleball Tournament of Champions from Ogden to Brigham City in September.

With less than five weeks to spare, Gullo said mounting frustration with Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell forced his hand.

Gullo’s Tournament of Champions, which drew 90 players from 20 states, two Canadian provinces and Europe last year, was scheduled for Ogden’s Monroe Park. But citing a lack of vision on the part of Ogden’s leaders, Gullo decided to relocate the Sept. 9-12 tourney to Brigham City’s Rees Pioneer Park during the town’s annual Peach Day events.

“I made an offer to Ogden City to improve the current facilities that we have right now — not just for me but also to create a championship court that would work for tennis,” Gullo said. “They turned me down.”

Gullo, who moved to Ogden from Buffalo, New York, sold his Burger King Franchises and established the nonprofit American Dream Foundation in 1998.

“I love Ogden City. It’s my kind of town,” Gullo said. “It’s a good blue-collar town and I’ve done a lot to promote Ogden City.”

His charitable fingerprints can be found throughout the city — the Children’s Treehouse Museum has a Freedom Trail, printing press and miniature oval office where youth can come and explore American history. And 15 years ago, he launched the annual Hot Rocking 4th.

But Gullo’s near-death experience in 2008, when he had to undergo five heart bypasses, shifted his focus to pickleball — a game that looks like a mix of tennis, ping pong and racquetball.

“I weighed 320 pounds, started playing pickleball, and dropped down to 245,” Gullo said.

In 2010, Gullo was instrumental in installing the city’s first four pickleball courts at Mt. Ogden Park.

“Only six people knew how to play the game,” Gullo said of those early days. But the sport took off, and now there are almost 60 sites between Layton and Tremonton where people of all ages play. Gullo described it as “the most social game ever invented.”

Gullo decided to bring 35 of the world’s best pickleball players to Ogden for a tournament in 2013 and offered $48,000 in prize money. The Tournament of Champions grew in 2014.

And the breaking point with Ogden?

“I offered to pay half of a 24-court complex with a championship court, and the city said no,” Gullo said of his dream of expanding pickleball facilities at Mt. Ogden Park, which sits high on the city’s east bench.

Instead, Ogden installed eight pickleball courts at the more central Monroe Park at 30th Street and Monroe Boulevard.

While Monroe Park wasn’t Gullo’s first choice for his tournament, he moved ahead with plans at the site — until conflicts with other events surfaced.

“They told us that they’d scheduled the AYSO soccer and I’d have to have my fences down and the park cleaned up by 8 a.m. Saturday morning,” Gullo said. “There’s not a lot of parking to begin with, and they threw another event there — they don’t care, they don’t see the vision.”

Caldwell called Gullo’s relocation of the tournament “unfortunate,” but said he wishes him luck.

“We’re sad to lose it, but we can’t be everything to everybody,” Caldwell said. “We try to strike a balance. We can’t do 100 percent of one enthusiast’s vision on any one project.”

Regarding Gullo’s offer to help expand pickleball amenities at Mt. Ogden Park, Caldwell said it’s one of the city’s busiest and “we didn’t have the parking or infrastructure to put his 24 courts in.”

Brigham City, with its established pickleball community, welcomed Gullo’s decision to move the September tournament.

“We have eight lighted courts at Rees Pioneer Park. They’re a couple years old and the use is constant,” said Kristy Law, community activities and service manager for Brigham City. “You can go down there on almost any night, and you have to wait for your turn to rotate in. They’ve been that popular.”

Gullo’s offer to make further pickleball improvements in Brigham City — including construction of a championship court with stadium seating — will likely wait until 2016.

“This year we’ll just play on our eight courts and will bring in everything we can to make his event happen,” Law said “We have the ability to grow west of our existing courts and keep adding as the popularity and demand comes. We’ll follow that dream, and see if it comes to fruition.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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