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In the News Index

Source: The Local Planet
Date: February 27, 2003
Byline: Jeremy Hadley


Magic Business for Beans

Spokane’s approach toward the investment of skateboarding (and ultimately, the retention of youth) clearly reveals a bias.

The Louisville extreme park was built for 1/8th of the cost of the proposed science center.

In their new TV commercials, IBM shows a CEO and a roomful of eccentric executives sitting around a boardroom table examining a series of fantastically absurd technological gadgets and gizmos. They rub a Magic Business Lamp and release a genie who grants magical business wishes. They look through Magic Business Binoculars to catch a glimpse of the future of business. They fiddle with a Magic Business Time Machine that lets them erase past business mistakes. And there’s Magic Business Beans, too.

"There are no magic business beans," ends that particular spot. IBM’s point is simple: Stick with the safe choice. After all, there are no magical answers and Magic Business Beans. Outlandish business solutions are no substitute for a time-tested investment of security. The best bet is the safest bet, so buy high and buy safe, young man.

Spokane sells the product of culture using the same strategy as IBM, with a reliance on safe choices for big iron. When it comes to taxpayer investment in Spokane’s culture, we like to buy high and we like to buy safe — whether it’s $24 million to renovate an old movie theater into a Symphony Hall or $70 million to expand our Convention Center. After all, there are no magic beans out there when it comes to developing Spokane. (Unless of course you count a $40 million Science Center that solves poverty. There’s some magic beans for you.)

One decade removed from the buy low and sell ridiculously high days of the ‘90s, Spokane is spending $130 million in big iron projects while another era of progressive investment passes it by. We desire a vibrant urban downtown, one that attracts and retains young, tech-savvy businesses and residents in their 20’s and 30’s, a new generation of residents who grew up on small, sleek and connected gadgets. Anything but safe. But Spokane is lacking the magic to attract these residents. And five million bucks in chump change buys a lot of magic.

A NEW CITY FOR $5 MILLION?

In 1999, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, elected Dave Armstrong mayor. A self-proclaimed politician with "small town" values, Armstrong took the office of mayor with an ambitious plan "to revive downtown Louisville into a place to live, work and play." At the centerpiece of Armstrong’s plan? A skatepark.

On his own initiative, Armstrong spearheaded the development of a $4.5 million skatepark. No bonds were issued. No one debated the merit of investing the money. And there was no difficulty finding a home for the investment, because the mayor decided that the best place for a new skatepark would be on prime downtown real estate.

Better yet, Armstrong didn’t waste any time trying to convince the city of Louisville that a skatepark was a good idea. He didn’t have to. He was convinced enough on his own that this was a good idea. So, he scared up the money, built the damn thing, and waited for everyone to thank him later.

And they are. Phase one of The Louisville Extreme Skatepark opened on April 5, 2002. That Friday afternoon nearly 4,000 people showed up, many of whom were not skaters. Parents, grandparents, curious downtown residents, politicians and The Associated Press dropped in. Even Armstrong showed up with his skateboard. What they found was a considerable return on Louisville’s investment.

Phase one of The Louisville Extreme Skatepark brought forth 40,000 square feet of marble-smooth, skateable terrain that included bowls, rails, a full street course, a vert ramp and America’s only 20-foot full-pipe. But that was just the beginning. Phase two consists of an indoor 20,000-square-foot wooden skating surface contained in an all-glass see-through building with two levels. The first level will have bowls and a street course. The second level will lead to the roof and a succession of three mini-ramps. And the investment doesn’t stop there. Other amenities to be included in the indoor facility are a concession area with a pro shop, a locker area, restrooms, and a horizontal climbing wall attached to the building (there are even plans for a drinking fountain, too!).

When asked by the AP reporter as to why he felt the need to build the park, Armstrong championed the investment with economic and cultural ferocity as one that potentially appeals more to non-skaters than skaters. "There is no question to me that if we build this here, more people in information technology and other young fields will want to live here and stay here."

The Louisville Extreme Skatepark wasn’t about hiding skaters away from complaining business owners and the police; it was to cater to a new generation of Louisvillians, some who are actually talented enough to call skateboarding, BMX-ing, or rollerblading their actual profession. (Laugh all you want, but how many times has your house been featured on MTV’s Cribs?) "Their vocation is extreme athletics," Armstrong said on opening day, "and the ranks of those people are growing every day."

HERE YA GO, KID...

In 1999, the same year Louisville elected Armstrong, the city of Spokane and its taxpayers made a $200,000 investment in skateboarding. The project was designated for a lucky community somewhere north of the Spokane River.

But shortly after the passing of the bond, the task of finding this park a home — a task left in the hands of the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department — shifted. Instead of deciding which lucky north side neighborhood deserved the new skatepark, Parks officials struggled to find anyone who wanted the skatepark. "We’ve reached a point where we have to make a decision," Mike Stone, Executive Director of the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department, told The Local Planet Weekly in May of last year. "[The north side skatepark] is one of the few projects left that has not really been moved forward. Everything else [from 1999] is either completed or in process."

That lack of progress didn’t sit well with local skaters. Skate years are like dog years. Three years is a lifetime for some skaters, especially for those teenage, high school skaters who weren’t planning on sticking around Spokane after graduation just in case the park ever got built.

Sure enough, local skaters soon began to direct their frustrations toward Stone and other members of the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department. Yet, Stone and his department are hardly to blame. In fact, it was Stone who commented that possibly a much deeper issue was at stake than finding an "appropriate home" for the skatepark. "Finding a location has been one of the real dilemmas. Mention the word ‘skatepark’ and it conjures up different meanings to different people." The real enemy, hinted Stone, was public opinion about what an investment in a skatepark is really about.

Which isn’t all that surprising. After all, most people calling Spokane home would safely say that Spokane is, well, pretty safe. Overtly conservative, even. Skateboarding is neither safe nor conservative — physically or psychologically. It has a long-term relationship with graffiti, punk rock and anarchy. The phrase, "Skateboarding is not a crime," never really got old in Spokane. Spokane’s approach toward an investment of skateboarding (and ultimately, the retention of youth) clearly reveals a bias toward Eisenhower’s America.

Two years prior to the passing of the northside skatepark bond, the city of Spokane built a skatepark under the I-90 freeway, called Under The Freeway skatepark. Taxpayers served up $177,000 for the skatepark project. But, like Stone says, the word skatepark conjured up different images to different people. Unfortunately, someone confused "skatepark" with "skate rink." They spent the entire wad of investment capital on two elements — a concrete pyramid ($24,000) and a huge structure referred to as "The Death Star" ($93,000) — to utilize 30,000 square feet of flat concrete. None of the investment was spent on transitions that would give the park a natural flow. None was spent on drinking fountains. Zero dollars were spent on bathrooms. UTF was the savings bond of skateparks. Low buy and low return.

Stone and the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department took the heat for UTF, too. But they were also the only people to step up and acknowledge that the UTF investment was flawed. "In my opinion, there weren’t enough dollars available," Stone said. "We had to do [the park] in phases and I don’t think you can really do that. I think it needs to be completed from the onset."

300 PEOPLE

On January 9, the Spokane Park Board approved Hillyard’s Sharpley-Harmon Park as the site for a new skatepark on Spokane’s northside. The decision was immediately greeted as a positive step in the right direction for Spokane’s youth. The decision was also greeted with an enormous sense of relief. We finally found a spot for this damn thing! WooHoo!

A month later, some 300 people showed up for the first community design meeting for the new skatepark. Aside from skaters of all ages, the meeting involved parents, Park Board members, local business owners and a group of old ladies who wanted to introduce themselves as the newest addition to tha ‘hood. Grindline, a skatepark construction and design company from Seattle, gave the presentation that afternoon. After the meeting, one of the presenters said that they’d never seen such a turnout. Not bad, considering that Grindline helped design the Portland, Oregon, skate mecca at Burnside, plus more than 50 skateparks around the world from Orcas Island to Okinawa, Japan.

The huge turnout and concern over a $200,000 skatepark seems to hint at the importance of such low cost investments. Even further, when 300 people of different ages, concerns and interests attend a Parks and Recreation meeting, why does a skatepark battle to find a home and some respect? After all, one would assume that the power of 300 people at City Council voicing their support to move ahead on a different taxpayer initiative would and should have some major effect.

Notwithstanding all this concern, the northside skatepark still hasn’t broken ground. For years, young Spokane residents have watched a $200,000 bond set aside for them earn interest for bureaucrats. Assuming 6 percent interest, that’s probably about $20,000 worth of funds that they’ll never see beneath a skateboard.

WHO ARE WE?

Mike Stone was absolutely right when he said that a skatepark means different things to different people. The mayor of Louisville, for example, sees a skatepark as an important facet of major downtown urban renewal, one that attracts and retains young, tech-savvy residents, employees and business owners, the type of residents that desire downtown living near new urban entertainment facilities and parks that cater to "alternative" lifestyles.

It all comes down to a simple question: what do you want your town to be? Are we a town that views an investment in parks as a necessary evil that gives young residents something to keep their idle hands from doing the devil’s work?

Or will we become another Louisville, rejuvenating downtown thanks to ballsy civic leaders making non-traditional low-buy, high-return public investments that shuck Old Spokane civics, security and big iron for the occasional magic bean?

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