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Getting off the ground 

SLO's proposed skate park faces bigger barriers than money

click to enlarge NOT OVER THE HILL YET :  Jonny Miller, Jono Hicks, and Scott Kam (left to right) are pushing for a new skate park in San Luis Obispo; one of the biggest challenges has been in organizing the skaters who will use it. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NOT OVER THE HILL YET : Jonny Miller, Jono Hicks, and Scott Kam (left to right) are pushing for a new skate park in San Luis Obispo; one of the biggest challenges has been in organizing the skaters who will use it.

Before school let out for the weekend on a recent Friday afternoon, a dozen veteran skaters ranging in age from their late teens to their early 30s took advantage of the kid-free, uncrowded skate park in San Luis Obispo to work the half-pipe. Some had tattoos peeking out of their sleeves, others were without shirts, their skinny arms and backs baking in the sun. One of the skaters turned his board belly-up to show a pea-sized hole in his wheel that he said was torn out on the park’s equipment.

San Luis Obispo’s skate park is a bare-bones collection of wood ramps, boxes with metal edges for sliding, and a half-pipe; all barely contained inside a rectangle surrounded by a high chain-link fence. There’s a stack of decaying plywood leaning outside of the fence, a stiff chain with no obvious purpose runs along the ground, and rusty screws spill out of the chain-link perimeter. Finger-length splinters abound.

That’s not to say the place is rundown, it’s just deteriorating, as wood does. It’s why the city agrees with local skaters: San Luis Obispo needs a new skate park, one made of concrete so it can withstand the abuse skaters dish out.

In government time—the time it takes to get needs studies accomplished, environmental studies, master plans, and funds together—San Luis Obispo is moving quickly. But in real time, city aides have been working for more than two years to get funding and the date for park construction is still up in the air. In teenager time; that might as well be forever.

There are many obstacles to getting the park built. First, there’s the money: skaters are expected to come up with $350,000 of the $1.4 million price tag, and they haven’t had much success. A second, and more difficult, problem is the skaters themselves. They aren’t simply another interest group lining up for a bigger slice of the city’s budget pie chart. At the heart of this issue is a large group of young people who don’t know, at least not yet, how to be their own best advocates. And the city seems so accustomed to mature and well-organized community groups that perhaps they’ve forgotten what a real grass-roots group looks and sounds like.

Who’s in charge?

Jono Hicks, the owner of Coalition board shop in SLO, looked out from the top of the SLO park half-pipe, took in the entire scene, and shook his head. The park had a recent makeover, but like Botox injections in an old face, the fix is temporary.

Dropping into the half-pipe during conversation lulls, Hicks pointed to several problems with the current park, from the configuration of the equipment to the materials, and he expounded on even more obstacles in the path of a new concrete park.

“For a while,” he said, “it used to be so bad you couldn’t come here.”

Hicks wouldn’t say it, perhaps because he’s working with the city and trying to be respectful, but what was obvious was that no one—at least on that afternoon—was using the new $50,000 worth of longer-lasting composite equipment the city recently installed. It was a sincere gesture, meant to act as a Band-Aid until the new park is built, but to many park users, it seemed like a waste of money and a communication breakdown.

A skinny younger skater, shirtless with a pair of black jeans, who didn’t want his name used, the one with a pea-sized chunk from his wheel, complained, “They’re not really talking to real skaters. If they had just given $50,000 toward the real park, we would be that much closer. … I feel like it was just a delay.”

Unfortunately, city budgets don’t really work that way.

“It’s definitely a Band-Aid,” Christine Wallace, a recreation supervisor for SLO, acknowledged of the new equipment.

“With [the new equipment] I’m still able to have an open skate park that’s legal. And I know that the kids are skating it, and that they are enjoying it. Since we’ve put it in we’ve had about three times the number of kids out there. So, it’s not ideal, but it will give them a place to skate where they’re not going to get in trouble.”

There is hardly an organized group to raise the money the skaters need for their contribution. The fundraising team includes a few staff members from the Parks and Recreation Department, a handful of business owners, skaters, and their parents—it’s basically an e-mail list, rather than a community group. For the most part, fundraising meetings happen when city staff calls them and each fundraising endeavor is headed by whoever steps forward to manage it.

Marty Cosgro is among the handful of people who have stepped forward. He’s organized fundraisers, and tried to motivate kids to show up at city council meetings. He’s involved not because he is a skater, but because his son is. Though he lives in SLO, Marty’s been driving his son Ryen to skate parks all around the county for the last six years, mostly because SLO’s park has been too dysfunctional.

click to enlarge BIG AIR :  Johnny Ransom makes the best of the park. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BIG AIR : Johnny Ransom makes the best of the park.
The Cosgros helped organize a skate day fundraiser at Mission Plaza in May, and they put donation jars in skate shops around town. At 14, Ryen has spoken to the city council more times than he can remember. He’s also encouraged people from school to show up at council meetings and handed out fliers for fundraising events. Their efforts, and help from several skate shops, have generated about $5,000 during the last year. At that pace it would take more than 70 years to generate the funds, yet Cosgro remains optimistic.

“It’s going to be a world-class skate park,” Marty Cosgro said. “At least that’s what I’m told.”

The new park will more than double the size of the current park from 6,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet, and it will have more equipment: rails and structures for street-style skating, as well as half-pipes and in-ground bowls, and it will have good flow. The project, in the same location as the current park, also includes plans for a promenade, a small amphitheater, and a piece of original art.

“We’ve got to build it,” Hicks joked, “‘cause I’m gonna break a hip soon.”

Hicks, a young 30-something with auburn-colored hair, leaned against a skateboard while he talked. He has kids, too, and so does Jonny Miller, a rough-looking guy with light-brown hair touching the back of his black T-shirt. Miller teaches skating as an after-school program. And Scott Kam, wearing a shirt that says “skate park supporter,” has, if not kids, Rootamental, a company that puts together one-of-a-kind skateboards. The three men are locals, old hands at skating, and along with the Cosgros form the main force behind the push for a new skate park in SLO. There is also a website: sloskatepark.com, which is run by a volunteer and support from board shops, particularly One Way Boardshop in SLO.

“We’ve made it our lives,” Kam said. “Skateboarding is our life.”

Even for the group, the effort can be overwhelming. What moderate success they’ve had in organizing has proven fleeting. They will acknowledge that skaters, being skaters, present a series of unique challenges.

“What we put on [at Mission Plaza]” Kam said, “was bigger than anything I’ve seen there. It was bigger than the Friday night concerts, and we only raised $2,000.  And that was the biggest idea we had.”

The International Association of Skateboard Companies—which connects manufacturers to distributors, collects statistical information, and generally promotes the sport—estimates there are 11,900,000 skaters in the country. The Skatepark Association of America said it’s the third most popular sport for kids between 6 and 18 years old. Unlike soccer teams, there are no coaches, leagues, or team moms to make sure the kids have a field on which to play. In skating, there are just people, groups of individuals who want the same thing.

“[Skateboarding] is very individual,” Hicks said. “That’s part of the appeal; you don’t need a team, you just need some concrete.”

“By definition,” Hicks went on, “it’s kind of an individual sport, so getting people together can be like herding cats.”

Two decades ago, skating was somewhat underground, done clandestinely in empty pools and on the street, where skaters made creative use of benches, rails and stairs. But since the ’90s two things have happened: cities have passed no-skateboarding ordinances and created obstructions to keep skaters off benches and rails. At the same time, though, there was an explosion in skate parks. Just about every city in the county has a park now; Los Osos, Paso Robles, Grover Beach, and Templeton each have concrete skate parks. Cayucos has a small park, but is looking to upgrade, Morro Bay and Atascadero have small wooden parks as well.

San Luis Obispo’s ordinance keeps skaters out of the entire downtown area. “We have restricted skating,” Wallace said. “And for good reason; things ought not be damaged. So because of that, hopefully the community will see the need for the skate park to be built, and to be built in a timely maner.”

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLERPHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLERPHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
$$$

During the last two town-hall style budget meetings, where citizens spoke directly to city officials about how to spend funds raised in a recent sales-tax increase, skaters showed up in force. At the 2007 town-hall meeting, they may have outnumbered every other citizen group there. And their message was heard: A new park became one of the city’s top budget priorities.

The city conducted studies, adopted a new master plan for Santa Rosa Park, and even designed the new park—all signs that the city is moving forward. Wallace said the city has applied for $300,000 in grants.

“I’ve spent two-plus years working with the stakeholders,” Wallace said. “The bummer of the economy, mixed with the other things that the city has been dealing with, is that there just isn’t the disposable income that there was.”

Kam, Miller, and Hicks feel as though the city hasn’t done enough to make reaching their $350,000 mark possible. The group wants a real fundraising plan on paper with the city’s letterhead, so they can approach sponsors.  Right now they don’t have much to offer potential backers.
  
“There’s no plan,” Miller said, “There’s no timeline … I want to go to some of my sponsors, but where’s the incentive for them? I can’t even say, ‘You gave me $25, so here’s a brick with your name on it.’ Where’s the paper trail?”
     
Wallace said there is a good opportunity for sponsors to have their name on a tile or plaque, or in some way receive recognition for their donations, it just hasn’t been set up yet. She said the city itself is looking for grants and sponsors to meet their million-dollar commitment. Right now the city is sitting on about $650,000 that can be used for park improvements. City officials seem ready to put a large chunk toward the skate park, but there is still a lot of money to raise.
   
Kam said they need more definite information, more action than a vague promise. “It’s just open ended,” Kam said. “They think we’re just going to raise the money for it, and we’re left without any tools, just trying to get people to pay attention and come to meetings.”

It doesn’t help that the city is in the worst financial crisis since before Mayor Dave Romero was a skater. The city was looking at a $10.4 million budget gap; recently that gap grew to $11.3 million, and officials fear it could get even worse.

The upside of building a concrete park is that it will require almost no maintenance, not even an employee to supervise it. When compared to some of the city’s more costly recreation programs—try $700,000 annually to keep Sinsheimer pool open, or $600,000 a year on the 9-hole golf course (though increased fees have been proposed for both programs to make up the cost)-—the city’s one-time cost of $1,050,000 can still look like a good deal.

 
- GO SKATEBOARDING!:  June 21 is national Go Skateboarding Day. Skate to the park and see it for yourself. For more information about SLO’s skate park visit sloskatepark.com. -
  • GO SKATEBOARDING!: June 21 is national Go Skateboarding Day. Skate to the park and see it for yourself. For more information about SLO’s skate park visit sloskatepark.com.
The skater stigma

One obvious hurdle is raising money, but perhaps the more difficult obstacle to overcome is a negative perception of skaters.

There was that moment, at the town-hall meeting two years ago, when a young skateboarder took to the microphone before hundreds of community members, including the five city council members, and perfectly—if unwittingly—illustrated one of the most overwhelming barriers to getting a real, in-ground cement skate park.

Struggling to fill a pair of loose jeans, he ambled past a riled crowd at the Ludwick Community Center to the lectern and adjusted the microphone down to his height. He was representing dozens of raucous adolescents, young kids at the meeting with their parents, and in all, maybe ten percent of the population under 18.

Skaters really needed a better park, he said. And then, when he could have stepped down, wandered peacefully back to his seat, left a good impression, he continued speaking: What the city didn’t need to spend money on, he said, was more cops, because they hassled him and his friends, and besides, if there were more cops, then the city would have to build more doughnut shops, he said.

The audience froze.

It was funny in a nervous, can’t-believe-he just-said-that, I’m-laughing-but-trying-to-look-disapproving kind of way. But did it help the cause? Almost certainly not.

Building a new skate park was still one of the most well-supported issues at the hearing, but for all the eloquent, respectable pleas for a skate park that night, who could remember anyone but the kid who said too much?

Beyond the image problem, it should have announced to whoever was listening that this group was composed of children.

Miller, who has three girls who all skate and teaches kids how to “ollie” after school, said despite what the disrespectful kid uttered, the old image of the rude, unruly skater punk as the norm is dated.

“When I was a young man,” Miller said, “We had a rough time, we were looked down on for skating, but with the X-Games it’s become very mainstream.”

To Ryen Cosgro, who has been skating since he was 8 years old, it’s a question of fairness.

“Skateboarding’s becoming way mainstream,” Ryen Cosgro said, “so, [building a skate park] is just like building a baseball field. All my friends skate.”

—Staff writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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