Bizznizz: Common Questions Answered: How to get a Skate park in YOUR Town. By Susan Linerode

2010/3/18 16:20:00 (6479 reads)
I get questions weekly from people all over the world asking how they can handle problems they are experiencing with regard to skate parks in their own communities. I am in a pretty unique position to offer some advice in this area. For those of you who don’t know me, I built Freedom Skate/BMX Park, a free skate park in Upstate NY in 2007. In order to get the project from idea to reality, I had to do a lot of things from planning the project, spearheading all the fundraising, running for elected office and finally, running the park. In the time since Freedom has been open, I have had the privilege of donating my time consulting with many communities across the US about specific problems they are experiencing.

Here are a few of the most common questions I get:

“My town used to have a park a few years ago but they shut it down. What can we do to get it back open?” When a town shuts down a park, they do so because the “hassle factor” outweighs the perceived benefit to the community. Make an appointment with the person who would normally oversee the skate park. Ask the following questions: “What specifically led to the closure of the park?” “What changes would need to be implemented to open the park again?” “How can we, the local riders, work together with you to make this happen?” When it comes right down to it, you need to find out as much as possible to the specific reasons a park was shut down. Once you have this information, you can come up with a specific plan to assist your town to eliminate the possibility of this happening again. A good example of this would be:

A town not too far away recently built a new skate park. Nike 6.0 helped out with the ramp building, the park open and the locals were stoked. A few months later, a person shows up to the park with a couple of girls, a sub par bike and a mission to impress these girls. No helmet, a big box jump and a broken neck later…the town decides to shut down the park. How can you get this situation turned around? Well, in this case, proper supervision would have made all the difference. Americorps is a federally funded program that allows a local municipality to cover a small percentage of the total labor cost and allows the park to be supervised by a responsible person. In my experience, by using the Americorps program, I can reduce my labor costs by 2/3. In towns with tight budgets, an inexpensive park monitor can make the difference between keeping a facility open and closing it permanently. Stress to the local community that the infrastructure is in place and paid for. Don’t let the operational costs be a deal breaker.

“My town told us we need to raise some money to show we are serious about wanting this park. What do we do now?”

This is actually a great position to be in. It shows your town in seriously considering your project. The best bet is to get the most for your efforts in terms of funding. Grants are a great place to start. Organizations such as the Tony Hawk Foundation and Bikes Belong (a US National bike advocacy organization) are great places to get some potentially “big bang” for your efforts. Keep in mind, your competition is stiff. I have seen some communities in such a rush to get a grant application in by a certain deadline, they end up submitting an application that it not the best it could be. Do your research up front and have a detailed plan of just what you are going to do in your community to get your project from idea to reality. Look for more unusual funding sources. Obviously every town is going to be going after the same grant money from the really well known foundations. In my case, I thought long and hard about the type of organizations that would potentially benefit from a skate park and went after them. In many states, the tobacco settlement money went out to provide funding for programs working to reduce teen smoking. In my state, each county got a pool of money for this purpose. By scheduling a couple of meetings with the director of “Tobacco Free NY-Oswego County,” the park was able to receive several thousands of dollars in exchange for becoming an “Alcohol and Tobacco Free Zone.” In fact, the partnership worked so well, Tobacco Free NY came to our aid once again. They provided sponsorship money for the Harborshred Pro BMX Jam, a contest to raise money for free and low cost parks in New York State. All the prize money came from spending a little time with the agency’s director to form a partnership where both sides win. Another example of potential funding is with the Armed Services. Each branch of the Armed Services has money in their recruitment budgets. This doesn’t mean if you make this agreement a recruiter is going to be at your park all the time, but rather they may sponsor a park element in exchange for some promotional graphics on the ramp. Again, by finding the right “fit” with a potential donor, it makes it much easier to earn the money you need for your project.

Local schools are another potential target not to be overlooked. Schedule a meeting with your local school district superintendent. Make a presentation on how a skate park can help his or her students (and there really are a lot of ways it can). Every school has kids they can’t reach or who struggle for a variety of reasons. I proposed a program to exchange something the school wanted (passing grades, reduced truancy or referrals or just staying out of trouble) in exchange for something the kids wanted (a skate park). As it turned out, the local student councils had A LOT of money in their coffers and made a sizeable donation to the park. We instituted a program where in addition to the local district donating to the project, I would provide incentive prizes for kids who achieved certain goals. All last summer I toted around a variety of items to Dew Stops and other events and contests getting autographs for my local park “winners.” By the way, special thanks to all the pros that helped make this job easy for me. Really the possibilities are endless. Even in a tight economy, if you work smart and think creatively you can come up with the money you need in a relatively short time.

“Our town built a park but it doesn’t allow bikes. Is there anything we can do?”

In 2009, the national bicycle advocacy group, Bikes Belong looked at this problem by surveying over 100 park managers in 30 states. Some of the park managers said they deny access to bikes citing concerns such as liability, user conflict and facility damage. Others just plain didn’t know why they didn’t allow bikes. At the same time, many other parks have figured out how to integrate biking and skating seamlessly. Here is a look at why the 46% of parks who do not allow bikes made that decision:

75% say it’s too dangerous to mix skaters and bikers
64% say bikes cause too much damage
48% cite liability concerns
30% say bikers weren’t around when the park was built
7% think their parks are too small
5% say they don’t know why

According to the survey respondents, nearly all of the reasons for denying park access come back to design. Park managers are often open to reviewing their policy on bikes. Nothing is going to change however, unless the bike community is well organized, professional and engaged. Many bikers often overlook that most likely, it was the skating community who worked on the original design and fundraising. Don’t make the mistake and underestimate the feelings that might develop if the skaters, who were there from day one, believe the bikers are trying to ride the coattails of their hard efforts. Compromise is key. An “all or nothing approach” is not the approach to take in this situation.

Sometimes, modifications can be made to the park design to allow bikes and skateboards to coexist peacefully. Just because a park doesn’t allow bikes today doesn’t mean they won’t tomorrow with perhaps a little give and take by both sides. “We want a park and our town says they are behind the project but it seems like nothing is getting done. How can we get our project moving again?”

This is a situation I find to be pretty common. Once the town gives the “green light” for a project, don’t think for one minute that you can sit back and wait for opening day. It just doesn’t happen that way. Keep in mind, your project might be just one of many your local Parks and Recreation has been assigned. Even more, in most cases, building a skate park is probably outside of the comfort zone of the person who might to a great job organizing your town’s Little League or Summer Recreation program. People like to do what they know they can do a good or at least reasonably good job with. It is absolutely crucial to form a good working relationship with the person in charge of your project right from day one. If your municipal advocate sees value in you and your ability to make his or her job easier, you are in the drivers seat and they are there to co-pilot you from A to B or an empty lot to a really nice park. Don’t get me wrong; this is not always an easy job. As many people as you have on your side working to get your project completed, there are going to be an equal and likely much larger group of individuals looking to derail your dream. Even worse, your detractors are going to show up at every public hearing, write letters to the editor in your local paper and even make phone calls to you at all hours explaining in no uncertain terms why “bringing in all the hoodlums to your proposed park is going to lead to violent crimes, reductions in property values and just plain mayhem.” They aren’t reasonable to talk to in most cases and they never are going to be convinced. Just keep your message on target, highlighting what you are hoping to bring to the community and leave it at that. I remember one time I received just such a call. It was later in the evening; I was tired and in no mood to hear what this person was saying (over and over and over). In a moment of frustration and annoyance, I became unable to keep my cool and discuss only the positive parts of what I was trying to do. Even though I was hardly rude or disrespectful, at the next public meeting to discuss my project, our phone conversation came out and was exaggerated to make it sound like I just unleashed the gates of Hell on this poor elderly woman. That one call set the project back a little because the town became more apprehensive to tackle such an “emotionally charged and divisive” project. It was a learning experience I share only because we are all human and sometime unexpected things happen. Another common occurrence is for the park project to lose steam when the project itself loses momentum. When everything is new, it’s exciting and easy to recruit volunteers. When people find out that there is actually a lot of time-consuming work involved (and you still might be a year or more from actually riding your park), they seem to disappear almost overnight. The key to avoiding this is to have a clear timetable of what is going to happen and who is going to be responsible. When I first decided I was going to build a park, I set an almost impossible timetable from day one. Looking back, I think allowing 6 months from the time I decided to spearhead the effort to coordinating the park opening to coincide with National Go Skateboarding Day in 2007 was a little insane. On the other hand, everything was so focused and planned that we didn’t ever experience the inevitable waning of interest that happens over time. I also learned I could survive on very little sleep.

When your project experiences a lull, go back to your original plans. See where you need to change your strategy. Some of that strategy may require you to seriously evaluate what your volunteers are bringing to the mix. You might have a volunteer who is a great guy, an excellent rider and fun on the weekends, but if he is not getting the job done then it’s on YOU to make the change. I find a lot of times, as much as you are dreading having that conversation, the other person is actually relieved.

The last example I can cite is with a community I worked with briefly over the winter. They were a small town that decided they were going to build “the biggest skate park in New York State.” While that sounded great, in reality, it was so far out of the realm of possibility that I knew the project was doomed from the start. It’s not reasonable to expect people to be “gung ho” about a project that in a perfect world would take 10 years to complete and in reality, will never materialize. Make sure the size and scope of your project is do-able or you are in for disappointment. This isn’t to say not to dream and to really stretch to make your park all you want it to be, but be a realist.

“My city just refuses to even consider in any way, shape or form to even consider the possibility of building a park. Is our cause hopeless?”

Well unfortunately this does happen from time to time. Again, the perception is that the “hassle factor” of a skate park is just so great that if a city refuses to even explore the possibility of building a park then they can avoid any hassle whatsoever. This can backfire in some cases, but unless you are so dedicated that nothing is going to stop you, then you have one last possible move…the “Hail Mary Pass” or the “Nuclear Option.” You can run for office. Running for elected office can be a GIANT hassle in itself but as I can attest to…when you yourself are your own “municipal project advocate” AND your resident park advocate, you can cut a LOT of red tape. Again, this should NOT be your first line of attack in your quest to get a park in your town but it some circumstances it will make the difference between your town or city get a park or not. It’s not easy and it’s not fun at times but it IS worth it. As I sit here at Freedom and look out at a park full of happy riders, completely stoked on riding outside after a long, cold NY winter, I would do it all over in an instant. Truly, nothing makes me happier than seeing 30 kids sending it on a sunny spring day…and having a park to ride whenever I want is pretty cool too. Good luck to everyone fighting the good fight…you can do it!

By: Susan Linerode
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