CLAYTON -- The sleepy downtown has awakened for bocce ball. Opening of the Ipsen Family Bocce Park in late June has made a stunning difference for the entire community.
It is a dream come true, according to City Councilmen Jim Diaz and Howard Geller, Ed and Cecilia Hartley, and Skipolini's owner Lester "Skip" Ipsen.
"Drive downtown and see it lit up with people having fun!" Geller said.
More than 100 people of all ages mingle on Main Street every evening to enjoy amiable conversation, food, drinks, sometimes music and bocce ball -- all thanks to Clayton Business and Community Association members and Skip Ipsen's donation of land for the site.
"Kent Ipsen (Skip's son) came to us and said that he wanted the bocce park to be a legacy for his father and a gift to the town of Clayton," explained Keith Hayden, CBCA bocce committee co-chairman.
Skip Ipsen has a different motive for the land donation.
"I want to repay customer loyalty and give back to the community. It fulfills our purpose for the good of the community: camaraderie, friendship, family, athletics and to make an attractive place for future businesses to locate here."
Since 1984, the CBCA had sought ways to entice residents to gather downtown. There was the renovated Grove Park and annual community events, concerts and shopping, but they needed a consistent attraction and bocce seemed perfect.
"It is an activity that people of any age can do together," Geller said. "You see a 12- or 13 year-old playing with a grandmother, and the grandmother wins!"
Echoing the sentiment, Diaz said, "I grew up watching my grandfather play bocce ball."
Hartley and his wife had formed a Clayton bocce league in 2001, which played at Newhall Park in Concord, partly to demonstrate a demand for bocce in Clayton.
By 2002, Geller and others climbed on the CBCA bocce bandwagon and attempted to locate seven courts on city property near City Hall. The effort failed because of its proximity to residences, an estimated $1 million cost and other reasons.
Another effort to locate a couple of courts in Grove Park fell by the wayside for lack of space and "then we gave up," Cecilia Hartley recalled.
The bocce park finally became a reality after the Ipsens offered their vacant lot next to the family business, CBCA put up $175,000, and the Ipsen family contributed about $125,000 more to build four pristine courts, picnic tables, benches, lighting, fencing, equipment and other amenities.
A CBCA Bocce Committee was formed, including Keith Hayden, Jim Lawrence, John Garret and the Hartleys -- who agreed to manage the league -- to shepherd the project through planning and to oversee construction by Terra-Nova, which did some remodeling on the adjacent business property as part of the project. Kent Ipsen was also part of that yearlong process.
Attorney Ed Hartley converted the CBCA legal status from a 501(C)(4) to a 501(C)(3) charity, to allow tax-deductible donations (not just for bocce). That provided a way for the CBCA to recoup its investment in the community.
"The dream was that the entire community would be involved and it (bocce park) would be there in perpetuity," Ed Hartley said. "The Haydens did all of the selling."
The organization has sold the naming rights to three of the courts at $25,000 each, and eight benches for $2,500, according to Cecilia Hartley, who kept track of many aspects of the project, including registrations, scheduling and formation of new teams.
She admitted that bocce has taken her away from her profession as a cake decorator for the past year, "But I will get back to it in August when I start teaching a cake decorating class at Hobby Lobby in Concord."
After years of individual and group efforts, no one expected bocce to be such a smashing success.
"We scheduled three sign-up dates in May," Ed Hartley recalled. "People were lined up 90 minutes before we opened and we were sold out within 30 minutes."
There are 77 teams in the league, which play every night except Saturday, and there are two sessions on Sunday, from June to October. During the day and on Saturday (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) free bocce play is available to the public, as long as the courts are not reserved for a party or event.
Bocce observers seem to be having as much fun as the colorfully-named bocce teams as they picnic or enjoy delivered sandwiches and pizza from surrounding restaurants.
"There is an entire family that plays together as a team," Hayden observed. "It certainly exceeded our expectations."
Contact Dana Guzzetti with Clayton news at email@example.com.