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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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SPoT has made its mark on world of skateboarding
Part one of this series chronicles the birth and rise of one of the country's top stakeparks in a Tampa warehouse.
By BOB PUTNAM
Published July 11, 2006
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Brian Schaefer, right, first opened Skatepark of Tampa to the public in 1993, later hiring Ryan Clements as general manager.
[Times photos: Brian Cassella]
One of Tampa Am’s competitions takes place on this outside vert ramp at Skatepark of Tampa, this one in January. Tampa Am attracts prominent skateboarders from around the country.
Skatepark of Tampa hosts Tampa Am every year, this one in January, featuring street and vert competitions.
TAMPA - George Lackey's large warehouse in the industrial area east of Ybor City sat empty for months.
Bills were piling up. He needed to find a tenant - fast.
So he listened to what Brian Schaefer had to say.
Schaefer had big plans. He wanted to convert the 28,000-square-foot warehouse into a skatepark.
Lackey wasn't thrilled.
"I never thought it would work," Lackey said. "(Brian) was a 21-year-old kid who came in here without 15 cents to his name. He said he was going to charge money for people to skate. I kept thinking, 'Who in their right mind would want to pay to skateboard in an old building with no air-conditioning?'
"But I decided to give him a chance."
That was 1993.
Years later, Lackey was at a restaurant and looked at the television screen. There, a bunch of kids were skating on ESPN.
"Good God, that's my warehouse!" he said.
Today, the warehouse at 4215 E Columbus Drive is known as Skatepark of Tampa (or SPoT). Nearly 20,000 skaters are on the park's e-mail list. About 1,000 skate there each week.
The privately-owned skatepark also is one of the top five in the country, according to Tony Hawk, widely considered the Michael Jordan of his sport. Hawk was so impressed, he included the park in two of his video games.
"The owners and employees (at Skatepark of Tampa) are all hardcore skaters and continually update the park as skating evolves," Hawk said via e-mail.
Schaefer has been to plenty of skateparks.
But only one turned on a light for him.
Schaefer saved money and headed to California to check out Kennedy's warehouse, a park in San Jose run by skateboarders who also called the place home.
"It was such a scene there," he said. "I've seen other skateparks, but this wasn't run by the YMCA or by someone's crappy parents. And the fact that they lived there opened my eyes that this was possible when we get home."
Schaefer worked on finding a place. No one seemed interested. Then he came across Lackey's warehouse.
"I liked it because the rent was half the price of the others," Schaefer said.
Still, Lackey had some reservations. He agreed to lease his place if Schaefer paid three months' security deposit. Schaefer did with the help of his parents, who took out a second mortgage on their home.
"Rent was $2,500 a month," Lackey said. "I figured these kids would never pay on time. At least I had three months' rent, so I had time to find another tenant. I was certain I would have to kick them out."
In January 1993, the park opened its doors to the public. Schaefer didn't have enough money to pay two landlords, so he lived at the warehouse with a few of his friends. They skated and worked, building the park from the ground up.
They erected wooden bank ramps, quarter pipes, ledges, flat bars, handrails and 12- by 32-foot half pipe.
A year later, the park held an amateur and pro contest. The tournaments quickly spread to the far reaches of skatedom.
The contests were particularly attractive to the masters of the half-pipe, a steeply graded, U-shaped chute into which a skater plunges, only to spring up an instant later on the other side of the wall.
"We had a really strong vert scene," Schaefer said. "Everybody that's somebody came here."
Then the craze was over.
* * *
Skating goes in cycles. By the late '80s, a new, hipper type of skateboarding was challenging the dominance of the vert genre. It was called street skating, where skaters opted for urban obstacles over the traditional skateboard parks.
Vert-ramp skating techniques were rapidly becoming obsolete.
Skateboarding competitions were rarely held. Some of the best were skating toward forced retirement.
Skatepark of Tampa was one of the last vestiges.
"It was one of the few parks in existence during the early 1990s," Hawk said, "and they had a vert ramp, which was even more rare. Many vert skaters during that time relocated to the Tampa area because ramps were scarce, and the few that were around were in dire conditions. SPoT kept theirs in good shape, and having it indoors was a huge bonus."
Then, in 1995, ESPN introduced the Extreme Games, which spotlight skateboarders and other alternative athletes. Vert competitions received prime coverage. The X Games made stars of such half-pipe artists as Hawk, Bucky Lasek and Danny Way.
Hawk became a roving ambassador who turned the whole nonskating world onto his sport.
But he always remembered the skatepark in Tampa that helped him get there.
In 2003, Tony Hawk's Underground video game was released. SPoT played a major role, with many of the park's employees featured as competitors in the street and vertical contests.
"(SPoT) was always special because of their dedication to skateboarding trough thick and thin," Hawk said.
* * *
The park has added to its repertoire the past few years. SPoT now has a building that houses music and art shows. There are plans of adding a lounge for parents to relax while their children skateboard.
Everything is maintained by a staff of 16 full-time and four part-time employees. Many were friends who either lived there or came to skate.
One of them is Ryan Clements. He got his chops down at local skateparks. But he had shallow pockets. So Schaefer cut him a deal, letting him skate in exchange for mowing the lawn.
Clements eventually came on staff. He is now the park's general manager.
"I thought I'd work here a few years and figure what to do with my life," Clements said. "It's not like that anymore. It's kind of blossomed into this career that none of us could have envisioned."
Another is Rob Maronek. He was friends with Clements and Schaefer and skated at SPoT often. Then he entered the corporate world as a software engineer.
When the dot-com world crashed, Maronek needed a job. Now he runs the skatepark's Web site and handles online ordering and an inventory system that keeps the park running.
"I was making lots of money as an engineer, more than $120,000 a year with stock options," Maronek said. "This isn't as much. But it's more fun. This is what I've always wanted to do."
Schaefer said he's given thought to moving into a bigger venue. But he wouldn't want anything too fancy.
"Really, I don't think we should ever move, because it would change the face and style of the facility," Schaefer said.
Lackey also hopes they stay put.
Five years ago, Lackey sold the warehouse to Schaefer.
The price: $1-million.
"Best tenants I've ever had," Lackey said. "Never missed paying rent. It's an amazing story. You could put 50,000 skateboarders in the same scenario, and Brian would be the only one who pulls this off.
"He proved me wrong."
X MARKS THE SPOT
The bay area plays a big role in the development of many of today's action sports stars.
Wednesday: Florida, a surfing nowhereland 20 years ago, is now king of the waves.
Thursday: Dade City Raceway started the career of some of the world's top riders.
Friday: Gibsonton is home to a 100-acre BMX park that will serve as the training site for future pros.