Planned skateboard park in Cleveland could have big impact as part of recreation hub in the Flats
Published: Saturday, February 12, 2011, 12:00 PM Updated: Monday, February 14, 2011, 12:29 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- When more than 180 skateboarders and BMX-bike riders showed up for a public meeting last April, Cleveland city officials were taken aback.
The crowd wasn't just large. It was young - people in their teens, 20s and 30s. They came from downtown Cleveland, from Parma, Kirtland, Eastlake and Kent. And they were riding a wave of enthusiasm for a municipal project: a skateboarding park in the Flats.
Compared to a downtown casino and a $465 million medical mart, the 15,000-square-foot skatepark doesn't seem like much. But proponents say the small project could have a big impact, attracting skaters from across Northeast Ohio, capturing traffic from other states and rounding out a recreation hub on the Cuyahoga River.
Mayor Frank Jackson has asked Cleveland City Council to approve $550,000 for the skatepark as part of the city's 2011 capital improvements plan. If council members concur, construction on the park might start this summer and the facility could open in 2012.
"For about half-a-million dollars, you can create another stop on the tour that skaters are taking for pretty much nine months out of the year," said Vince Frantz, a devoted skater and executive director of thePublic Square Group, a Lakewood nonprofit focused on bringing skateboarding to neighborhoods. "People are leaving the city a handful of weekends out of the summer, the fall. All of a sudden, we're going to be right in the middle of all this traffic between Pittsburgh, Columbus and Detroit."
Cleveland's previous skatepark attracted plenty of wheeled traffic to North Coast Harbor. But the steel ramps, left over from the Gravity Games and turned into a municipal park in 2004, were falling apart when the city dismantled them last year. The new park on Merwin Avenue would be more than twice as large, poured from concrete and designed to last decades with little maintenance. Nestled on the Columbus Road Peninsula, the park would be wrapped by the river and surrounded by industry and recreation.
"It was a really dramatic site, and then the rowing foundation came along and took the site next to it," said Eric Wobser, executive director of the Ohio City Near West Development Corp. and a former city employee who shepherded the skatepark project. "There's a lot of people-powered recreation down there."
The Cleveland Rowing Foundation is preparing to open Rivergate Park, a 6.5-acre facility that replaced a longtime marina. Rowers will push their shells into the river in March, and public kayaking could start in May. Last week, foundation officials said that USRowing, the governing body for the sport, is considering Rivergate Park as the location for a major national race in fall 2012.
On Columbus Road, a nonprofit bicycle co-op that runs classes and sells and rents bikes recently moved to a larger building. And long-term plans for the peninsula involve a large public park and connections to a network of bicycle and pedestrian trails running from Tuscarawas County to Lake Erie.
"It makes sense when you look at where the Flats is going," Frantz said of the skatepark site. "If there was not a larger plan that we're involved in, then it would sort of be a lonely place. This guarantees foot traffic. If the plan for the Flats is to lean more toward recreation and people buying condos and redeveloping the buildings, you have instant traffic from the day the ribbon's cut to the day the snow falls."
Across the country, skateboarding attracted 8.4 million people in 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. More than 1.2 million of those skaters were in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. The number of skaters and the amount they spend annually - $94.9 million in 2009 - fluctuates, and it has dropped since the early 2000s. The sport wins fewer devotees than basketball or baseball, though the number of people who play football isn't much larger.
Opening a skatepark can be a battle. Debates over location, safety and concerns about skaters raged for more than a decade in Lakewood and six years in Bay Village. But public parks are becoming more common and some cities, particularly on the west coast, are creating networks of parks scattered across neighborhoods, said Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the Tony Hawk Foundation in Vista, Calif. Since 2002, the foundation has awarded $3.4 million in grants for public skatepark projects in 467 communities across 49 states, including Ohio. A new park can attract hundreds of skaters daily; an older park might bring in 30 to 50 skaters each day, he said.
"Cleveland's lack of any skatepark within its city limits is a very serious need," said Ken Silliman, chief of staff to Mayor Jackson. "There is a very dedicated and enthusiastic group of skateboarders in Cleveland who will use our streets and sidewalks if nothing else is available. We feel the obligation to provide them with a state-of-the-art, well-located skatepark that will be an attraction."
Cleveland's park would be built on city-owned land and funded using general obligation bonds. The Jackson administration plans to borrow $31 million for 2011 - money dedicated to projects, not services. The $550,000 for the skatepark would cover design, engineering and construction. Adding benches, sidewalks, plants and a boardwalk would cost an additional $169,000, according to an estimate from landscape architect McKnight Associates Ltd. The city has not identified funding sources for the site improvements, though several nonprofit groups are looking at potential grants.
Grindline, a noted skateboard design and construction company based in Seattle, created a conceptual plan for the park last year. Through site visits, public meetings and a process funded by $20,000 from the Cleveland harbormaster, Grindline came up with a design that seems to mimic the winding Cuyahoga River. Skaters would follow a crooked path called a snake run, grind down banisters and drop into a bean-shaped bowl, all under a sky broken by bridges.
Frantz, a 37-year-old information designer, expects to skate there with his three children. He first picked up a skateboard in the mid-'80s, as a child in rural northwest Ohio. Now married and living in Lakewood, he skates at least once a week and credits the sport with shaping his life and career. Through skateboarding, he's met clients and future coworkers, friends who started their own companies and guys who went from pumping gas to flying planes.
Since Cleveland announced plans for a permanent park, Frantz has been inundated with questions and feedback from local skaters and former Clevelanders.
"We loved the Gravity Games when they came, but it's a handful of days and then it's over," he said. "When it's a handful of tax dollars, there's nothing really being born here. The city is birthing something itself, in a unique way, in a unique location. That means this is something that no one can take away."
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