Rolling Ahead

New skate parks and inline facilities learn from past mistakes

By Stacy St. Clair


Once upon a time, a benevolent park district decided to bestow a skate park upon its youngest residents. But not just any skate park—a $500,000 facility that the skaters themselves helped design.

The kids clamored for quarter pipes. The officials gave it to them.

The kids demanded rails and ramps. The officials granted their wishes.

The skaters cheered. The parents showered the district with praise. The officials congratulated themselves for being so incredibly magnanimous.

But no one lived happily ever after.

After planning the park and spending a half-million dollars, the district hired a local contractor to ultimately design and build the facility. The contractor—while knowledgeable about engineering and construction codes—knew nothing about the sport of skating.

When the park opened, the surface was completely wrong. The skaters' wheels couldn't get enough grip to make turns. The ramp surfaces were so rough, it caused bruises and abrasions all over the kids' bodies.

Word quickly spread. The fairy-tale park was a nightmare, further proof that adults don't understand the wildly popular sport or its athletes. The kids returned to sidewalks and community stairs they had ridden before the park's creation. As always, the local merchants and pedestrians complained and begged officials to do something about the "nuisance."


The park district, however, could do nothing. It had spent an exorbitant amount of money to build the skate park and didn't have any left to remedy the problem.

The park, once the Taj Mahal of good intentions, became a $500,000 monument to poor planning. The skaters, once civic-minded teens, resumed their positions as public pests.

And only the local contractor lived happily ever after.

"That's really the biggest mistake cities make," says Heidi Lemmon, executive director of the Skate Park Association of the United States of America. "You can't have 12-year-olds planning your parks. You need someone with experience."

As such, skate park and inline rink designers and architects are sprouting up all over the country. Once concentrated mostly in California and Florida, they're opening at a rapid rate in traditionally non-skateboard states like Minnesota, Maine and Pennsylvania.

Firms nationwide, however, face an uphill battle. Park districts and municipalities still remain reluctant to hire an outside architect because they think their public works department or local concrete pourers can do the same job for less money.

"They're wrong," Lemmon says. "An experienced firm can actually save you money."

And she's talking big savings. Lemmon estimates a skate park architect can save as much as 50 percent on a facility. Without prompting, she rattles of the names of three $500,000 California parks that could have been built for $250,000 or less.

"We're wasting a lot of money on some awful parks," Lemmon says.

She's not alone in her views. Tony Hawk, the skating world's answer to Michael Jordan, started a foundation to help build well-designed parks after seeing the horrid, yet pricey, parks throughout the country.

"A city gets an idea to build a park and they just sort of go off without supervision," Hawk told Big Brother, a skateboarding magazine, earlier this year. "I just have been skating these really [awful] parks. And I just can't believe it, really. It saddens you that here's this city putting all this effort in for the kids that want to skate, and they don't get any direction. Some cement contractor claims to have built something that resembles a skate park and they get the job because they underbid everyone and then there's this terrible thing that costs 200 Grand. And no one wants to skate it."

To thwart what he considered sub-par parks, the skating star started the Hawk Foundation. The charity provides grants to groups trying to build skate parks—provided they have a proper design and builder.


The foundation's first award went to the city of Philadelphia. And there are plans to help some in inner-city schoolyards in Los Angeles, says Lemmon, who often works with the foundation.

"We give grants on the basis that they use people that are experienced and know what they're doing to design the park and build it," Hawk told Big Brother.

If you're still wondering who Hawk is, perhaps a little background is needed on the sport. And, yes, it is a sport. In fact, skate boarding and inline skating are the fastest growing sports in the country.

There are more than 11 million active skaters nationwide, most of them between the ages of 7 and 17. Roughly 80 percent are boys, though the number of girls is growing as more parks are built, and they have more exposure to the sport.

Not just for skaters: BMXers
are calling these facilities home, too.
Ramps should be tough enough to
take on BMX use. The ride surface
should hold up to scrapes from pegs
(at the axles), and the structure
should be solid enough to take the
extra impact a bike can deliver.

"It's only a matter of time," one park designer says. "It's not going to take a federal lawsuit and an entire generation for girls to have accessibility to parks."

The numbers are growing as exponentially each year, industry data shows, as the sport gets more exposure on television and in video games. NBC and FOX occasionally air competitions. Then there's ESPN2, which has made X-Games and skating the cornerstone of its programming.

"It's not a fad," Lemmon says. "The children are our future, and we have to pay attention to them."

The future also holds a major motion picture about Tony Hawk's life. Disney—which owns ESPN—has bought the rights to his life story, meaning we can expect tons of hype and probably a promotional tie-in with some fast-food chain.

Still, naysayers love to compare skate parks and inline hockey rinks to their dearly departed ancestor, the roller-skating rink. Many remember a time when roller rinks were jammed on weekend nights, and it didn't seemed anyone could ever meet the demand.

Then, quicker than you can say "all-skate-change-direction," they disappeared. Done in by waning interest and passing fancy, no one seemed to mourn their extinction.

Around the same time, skateboard parks nationwide began shuttering after enjoying intense popularity in the late 1970s in warmer states. The sudden—and unexpected—closings were directly related to problems with liability insurance, an issue that still haunts skating enthusiasts today.

The "liability excuse" is cited most often today as the reason park districts and municipalities don't want to build parks. Coverage, however, is available, and it's not as expensive as some think. The insurance industry knows the facts: A basketball player is three times more likely than a skater to sustain a major injury. A football player is five times more likely.

The people who use liability or passing fad as an excuse are either don't know the truth or don't want to acknowledge, Lemmon says.

"The people who say that are the ones who don't want to build the parks no matter what," she says.

Building a good facility
Skater demand spurred the development of the
new inline hockey facility at Alpha Ridge Park
in Howard County, Maryland.

Municipalities and park districts brave enough to take the plunge building a skate park or inline rink need not do it by themselves. Actually, they don't even have to be the leader on the project.

Almost every community has a group of skaters who feel disenfranchised because they have been banned from jumping obstacles on downtown sidewalks or from commandeering parking lots for pick-up hockey games. It's not uncommon for these kids to appear at the occasional council and commission meetings imploring officials for facilities to call their own or at least less restrictive skating laws.

Many towns have found great success after taking the skaters up on their offer and challenging them to help raise the money for the project. This usually is done after forming a committee consisting of parents, skaters and local school officials. Some cites also have asked area skate shop owners for input because they most likely are the people who best understand the sport and its local popularity.

The ad-hoc group traditionally is placed in charge of fund-raising efforts, a method used by officials to gauge the whether interest in the park and/or rink is sincere. The speed with which the group hustles for dollars and donations is often good indication about how much they want the facility.

Making a List
Five things to consider when planning your parks and rinks

Create a zero-tolerance policy for graffiti. If you see graffiti—and you will—remove it immediately. If it's up for more than 24 hours, it's up too long. Taggers (a.k.a. graffiti artists) love to see others gawking at their work. To deter them, some operators shut their facilities until the graffiti is removed. You don't have to be that extreme, but you must have a plan. If there's one truth in skate parks, it's graffiti begets more graffiti.

Be careful when you remove graffiti. Sandblasting definitely will remove the paint, but it also removes some of the cement making it rough and unskatable. Waterblasting is more concrete friendly but only should be used as a last resort. Instead, operators should consider the many spray-on removers sold at hardware stores.

Consider adding a viewing area for fans and parents to sit and watch. If the X-Games have proven anything, they've shown skateboarding to be a fantastic spectator sport. The area should be separated from the park by either a fence or large space. You can provide either benches or a grassy sitting area. A word of caution: If you install benches, make sure they're securely fastened to the ground. Otherwise, clever skaters surely will move them and skate them.

Install a pay phone. Many of your patrons will be too young to have a driver's license. They'll need to call mom and dad when they're ready to be picked up.

Get to know your skaters. The more respect you show your young patrons, the more respect they'll show your facility. Consider hosting local tournaments, demonstrations and classes. Hire a DJ to play music on occasional weekends.


Berendo Middle School Skate Park, like more
and more skate facilities, has received a lot of
community support.

Just don't be surprised if they come back quickly. Some committees have been known to secure to monetary goal in just a few months.

Of course, we're dealing with a completely different economy today than we were when many parks and rinks were built in the late 1990s. Many communities are considering semi-private ventures in which the taxing body donates the land and building costs, then an outside business operates it.

This has been a successful venture in many areas, saving cities money on insurance and staffing.

A joint venture, however, means the skaters are most likely going to pay to use the park. Some facilities charge as little as $1 per day, which may seem reasonable for an adult. But young skaters, especially ones in less affluent areas, often argue it's difficult for a 12-year-old to scrape up $30 each month.

The Skate Park Association pushes for free parks, even if it means they aren't staffed. With only half of the 700 parks nationwide as public facilities, kids are in desperate need for an affordable place to skate.

If communities must charge for their main park, Lemmon suggests building smaller satellite parks that can be used at no cost. The smaller parks can have just a couple features, maybe a ramp or some rails, to satisfy—and whet—the appetite of hungry skaters. When they yearn for something fancier, they can pay the extra money to go the larger park.

This inliner demonstrates her
toe-grab move on a quarterpipe/
box/wedge combination.
From skateboarders to inline
hockey players, the demand
is high for quality skate
parks and rinks.

"This will get the kids interest piqued," she says. "You could put different things at each park, which would encourage kids to go to different parks and meet different skaters."

Without a semi-private venture, cities must lean more heavily on their ad-hoc committee to secure the necessary money. But grassroots organizations are going to need help, and there's one thing cities and park district can do better than a normal citizen: write grants.

There are millions of dollars, both private and public, waiting for communities to claim. Tony Hawk, for example, has said his foundation selects its recipients based on grants that catch the directors' eyes and make the project seem appealing.

Every government agency has someone on staff who knows his or her way around a grant application. Employ their help or ask the local school district for assistance, even if its only connection to the project will be its students skating there after classes. School systems have a plethora of experience in applying for playground and child recreation grants and may be best suited to write the skate park proposal.

"There's money out there if you look for it," Lemmon says.

An increasing popular place to look is the local police station. Law enforcement agencies from Windham, Maine, to Compton, Calif., have helped build skate parks in their communities.

In Los Angeles, the officers helped raise the money to build facilities at local high schools. They supervise the facilities after classes are dismissed, giving them a chance to meet the teens and have positive interactions with them. The venture has proven so successful there are plans 18 more inner-city parks in the coming year.

"The kids are just loving it," says Lemmon, whose association helped with the project. "It's a great way to get rid of problems between the police and teens."

A police officer in Windham sought grant money to build a park after spending too much time in the summer busting kids for skating in the business district. Many of them were unrepentant repeat offenders who told community service officer they "just wanted to skate."

The officer won a modest grant in 1999 and built a temporary park in the high-school parking lot. In the first five weeks of operation, more than 1,800 visitors used the facility. The overwhelming response caught the city council's attention and officials gave Officer Matt Cyr the money and land to build a permanent site.

Building a park, however, was a gamble for a small Maine town because skating is still a relative new sport in New England. The risk, though, more than paid off. The new facility, conveniently located next to the police station, opened in 2000. More than 7,000 kids, many of whom live in neighboring communities, used the park from this past season, an impressive number given the town's total population of 15,000.

Even more important, the town's juvenile crime rate has dropped 36 percent since the park opened. Drug arrests have gone down an eye-popping 75 percent.

"The more positive alternatives you give the kids, the less apt they are to break the law," Cyr says.

Cyr credits the park's "zero-tolerance" policy for the plummeting crime rates. Kids who do drugs, swear, bully, fight or vandalize the park receive a lifetime ban. Only 15 kids have been expelled in the past three seasons, most of them from different towns. The skaters—some of whom report peers to police officers when the see something illegal going on—follow the rules because they don't want to risk losing the park.

Besides, with the police department next door, it behooves everyone to be model citizens. At any given moment, an officer might drop by just to say hello.

"I think it's the best thing since sliced bread," says Cyr, who visits the park three to four times per week. "I wish more police officers would support this because it's such a great thing."

But if you don't build it—or build it poorly—local skaters will try to find their happy ending elsewhere. Their interpretation, however, could be a community horror story.

"When you build a really crappy park," Lemmon says, "words gets around. If they can find a (street) curb, they'll do that before skate a bad park."

Two-Court Conversion

OK, take a look around your community. How many empty tennis courts are there?

Six, ten, a dozen? Don't be ashamed to admit.

After enjoying wildly popularity in 1970s, tennis isn't attracting as many casual players as it once did. As such, the public courts that were jammed 30 years ago are as outdated as Bjorn Borg's hair these days.

Luckily, all is not lost. Many communities are converting their unused courts into inline hockey rinks. The conversion has proven successful because, let's face it, skaters were using them as makeshift rinks anyway.


In 1998, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks converted two old courts at Alpha Ridge Park into an inline hockey rink. Officials posted a notice warning tennis players of the impending change and giving them a chance to object. The department didn't receive one complaint.

But, boy, did they meet a need.

Skaters who had once been confined to parking-lot games descended upon the new rink. It wasn't regulation size—roughly three tennis courts equal a full-size rink—but it didn't matter.

An inline hockey league thrived at the new site, even if it was so small they played with a reduced number of players on each side. The rink always seemed to have someone rolling around it.

"The tennis courts weren't being used," says Raul Delerme, a planner with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. "That's why we stepped up to the inline hockey rink. Now we're overwhelmed with participants."

The site became so popular, Alpha Ridge's 600 skaters soon began lobbying for a regulation rink. County officials agreed and opened a $300,000 rink in September 2001 (see pictures on pages 17 and 18).

Planners converted the rink from an old basketball court. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no outcry from hoopsters over losing their court. The community's positive reaction to the facility has convinced officials to consider other inline sites.

Plans are already in motion to build a regulation-size rink at a regional park. A pavilion will cover the rink to make it available for year-round play. Officials are also considering opening an indoor facility in the future.

And it's all because two converted tennis courts showed the county how popular inline hockey can be.

"We're turning people away we're growing so much," Delerme says.

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