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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 22, 2003
Byline: Leslie A. Pappas


Skateboarders get room of their own

Once seen as potential trouble spots, skateparks are now embraced.

Debby Lamanna wasn't sure a skatepark was a good idea.

But Middletown Township supervisors said that teenagers in the Bucks County community wanted one, and, as the new recreation director, it was up to Lamanna to figure out the details.

"I thought, oh, well, this will be interesting," she said.

Lamanna, who had spent a lifetime working in recreation, worried about injuries and lawsuits. The rest of the community saw potential for other problems: drugs, vandalism, noise and crime.

"There were a lot of fears," Lamanna said. "I was the first skeptic that they had to convince."

One year after the park's opening, Lamanna is a believer.

"It's turned out to be a great thing," she said. The park, off Langhorne-Yardley Road, attracts more users than the tennis or basketball courts, and the skateboarders, in-line skaters and BMX bikers who use it have all been well-behaved.

The public park is supervised, and helmets are required. Those who use it must sign forms that waive the township's liability.

"Most of the fears that are out there don't manifest themselves," Lamanna said.

Skateparks in the Philadelphia suburbs are coming of age. Once viewed with bemusement, hostility, or distrust, skateparks are now in high demand. Scores of municipalities throughout the five-county region are either planning or constructing courses of bumps, pyramids, and half-pipes.

In Kennett Square borough, in Chester County, officials are working with the local YMCA to establish a skatepark that would be available to members of the Y.

"For about two to three years, Council has been getting increasing requests for a skateboard park," said David Teel, borough manager. The 10,000-square foot oasis for skaters could be ready in a year, he said.

Nearby New Garden Township is evaluating whether to incorporate a skate area into plans for a 43-acre municipal park.

"There was a well-organized group of skateboarders and their parents, and they had all the design criteria and had done a lot of research," Township Manager Carmen Raddi said. But "whether it will be included is up to the board [of supervisors] to decide."

In Upper Providence, Montgomery County, a 15,000-square-foot park is scheduled to open on Saturday. Builders say it will be the largest within 30 miles.

The interest in building new parks is no surprise to Will Hemler, a skatepark consultant and designer with General Recreation Inc., a company that represents skatepark equipment manufacturers.

"I can pretty much throw a dart at a map, and that's a town looking for a skatepark," he said.

About $50,000 will buy enough ramps, banks, boxes and rails to turn an old basketball or tennis court into "a playground for 8- to 16-year-olds," Hemler said. Towns usually spend at least $100,000 by the time the concrete is poured and equipment set up.

About 25 skateparks are open in the five-county region in the Philadelphia area, Hemler said, with five more due to open this summer and at least 100 more in the works.

Nationwide, there are about 2,000 finished parks, with at least another 1,000 in the planning stages, said Heidi Lemmon, executive director of Skatepark Association USA, a Los Angeles-based group that tracks industry trends.

But, Lemmon said, the eastern seaboard is behind the curve.

"If you're seeing parks go in around there, it's new and it's about time," she said. On visits to Philadelphia over the last few years, she said, "All I heard from the kids was 'ticketing, harassment, ticketing, harassment, jail.' "

Philadelphia forced skateboarders out of the city's LOVE Park, the skateboarder's Mecca, in 2002, and it has banned skateboarding in public squares unless otherwise posted.

Skateboarders worldwide still cling to hopes that LOVE Park will one day reopen to skateboarders, but, for the moment, the city is standing firm.

Schwenksville, a borough of about 1,700 people in Montgomery County, also bans the sport on all public streets and sidewalks — and fines violators up to $300.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," said Janet Filson, whose son, Ryan, rides a BMX bike. "These kids have to have something to do."

Filson ends up driving half an hour to Phoenixville or East Greenville so her son and his friends can go to skateparks there. But Ryan Filson wants something closer. He has started a petition — and already has 300 signatures — calling for a skatepark in the Perkiomen Valley School District.

"I went online and looked to see how other people have gotten skateparks in their towns," he said. "And that [a petition] was one of the main things you really need."

It's not the first time the issue has come up. In 1996, a petition signed by 38 students called on the Perkiomen Valley school district to provide a safe, legal place to skate.

Fred Schuetz, head of the Perkiomen Valley Healthy Community Partnership, a coalition of groups working to improve the area's quality of life, thinks the region needs to start paying attention to the skateboarders' pleas.

"Every community has a skatepark, whether they admit it or not," Schuetz said. In other words, skateboarders end up skating on private property and evading police.

The partnership has sponsored two meetings to discuss the issue, and hopes to gather more support when school reopens in the fall.

It could be a long fight.

In Havertown, Delaware County, the quest for a skatepark began in earnest three years ago. A 12-year-old skateboarder, Mike Robison, went by himself to a park board meeting and told officials that Haverford Township needed a place to skate. When the board asked for proof of support, he returned with 300 people.

"It was huge," said Tim Denny, the township's director of Parks and Recreation.

Since then, the township has drawn up a plan, raised money, bought equipment, and resurfaced a 9,800-square-foot area behind the police station. The park has received donations from the local senior center and strong support from the president of the Haverford clergy association, Sister Helene, an 83-year-old nun.

But when residents Keith Hensil and Sean Maloney, both 16, rode their skateboards to the site last week, the only obstacle they found in the park was an overturned plastic barrel.

"We decided to come up today to see if it was open," said Hensil, who jumped over the barrel a few times and said he planned to find somewhere else to skate.

"The two big issues we're dealing with are image and insurance," Denny said.

Last week, Denny once again met with the township's solicitor and insurance carrier, trying to decide whether the park would have to be supervised.

"The bottom line is, we live in a sue-happy world," said R. Keith Hite, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. "Townships, like all units of government, are at the top of the target list for suits. And any time a township provides a service, it accepts a liability."

But as more skateparks open, stereotypes are disappearing and fears of liability are becoming easier to overcome.

The new skatepark in Upper Providence Township, for example, will be unsupervised, open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. The $190,000 park — the size of two tennis courts — will have a grand opening celebration on Saturday, with hot dogs, ice cream vendors, a DJ, and skateboarding pros to demonstrate the new equipment.

Al Cushman, the township's parks and recreation foreman, doesn't see the skatepark as something different, just a much-needed add-on to the sporting facilities that Upper Providence already has.

"It might bring in a crowd that we're not used to seeing," he said, but added, "They're a great group of kids."

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