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St. Pete Beach joins trend of cities with skate parks

The City Commission agrees to build a $72,000 park next to City Hall. South Pinellas' second, it may be done by mid-July.

By ANDREW MEACHAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETE BEACH -- The City Commission has cleared the way for a skate park on a triangular patch of land next to City Hall.

Tuesday's 7-0 vote follows a recommendation by the Leisure Services Department to accommodate teens on inline skates or skateboards and get them off the streets.

"We want to direct these kids' energies in a positive way," Mayor Ward Friszolowski said of the plan to wedge the 4,000-square-foot park into a 90-by-70-foot slice of property in the southwest corner of the City Hall complex at 7701 Boca Ciega Drive.

The estimated $72,000 in construction costs will come out of unassigned capital improvement funds, said assistant Leisure Services director Jim O'Reilly. The 2 inches of concrete, topped by a tennis-court surface and an assembly of ramps, rails and other devices, could be set by mid-July.

Until then, St. Pete Beach resident Van Chlapowski, 12, will have to depend on his mother to drive him to the skate park at Gulfport Recreation Center. Chlapowski and fellow seventh-grader Joseph Povilauskas, 13, appeared before the commission with their skateboards to support a park in St. Pete Beach. The new park will offer more skating ramps -- known as wedges, banks, quarter-pipes and half-pipes -- than the Gulfport location at 5730 Shore Blvd. S.

Skate parks have been gaining in popularity, from 40 nationwide in 1993 to more than 700 today, said retailer Gary Sullivan of Florida Oceansports, at 544 First Ave. N. He believes demand soon will push that number into the thousands.

"Ideally, wherever there is a basketball court, right next to it will be a place for people to skate," Sullivan said. But he estimated that after these anticipated boom years, there will still be twice as many basketball courts as skate parks.

The only other such outlet in south Pinellas, St. Pete Skate Park, will remain the largest, taking up two tennis courts in Coquina Key Park. For the past two years, attorney George Rahdert has leased the space from the city of St. Petersburg.

Rahdert said he got involved through his sons, who are all avid skating enthusiasts.

"The kids who enjoy that sport were being criminalized at a low level, hassled off public areas and private property," said Rahdert, who represents the Times on First Amendment issues. "I thought it was a shame to turn basically good kids into that kind of opposition with law enforcement."

The presence of an adult manager, lighting and parents with cellular phones has reduced crime in the park, Rahdert said.

The St. Pete Beach site will not be supervised, but the Police Department rises over the field at the southern border of the complex. Anyone using the park will have to get an identification card from the recreation center, which entails agreeing to safety and other rules.

This requirement addresses concerns about the city's liability for injury to skaters and skateboarders. (The original plan would have permitted BMX-genre bicycles as well, but that aspect was scrapped for fear of collisions with skaters.)

O'Reilly cited a National Recreation and Parks Association study showing that "the rash of lawsuits feared by many municipalities over skateboard parks simply has not materialized." A similar survey by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, he noted, showed skateboarders suffering fewer injuries than those playing basketball and other sports.

The city's insurance carrier, Public Risk Management of Florida (PRM), told commissioners in a Feb. 19 letter that an untested state law protects government entities against litigation, so long as certain safeguards are met. These include the city's maintaining park equipment properly and obtaining consent forms for children under 17, PRM assistant executive director Judy Hearn wrote.

The only law standing in the city's way is one of its own -- an ordinance prohibiting skateboarding in city parks or recreation facilities.

According to City Manager Carl Schwing, police have issued only "one or two" citations for violating the skateboard ordinance, "and those only happened after multiple infractions."

"We may have to tweak the law a little bit," said Commissioner John Phillips.

Joseph and Van, the only vocal skateboard advocates at the meeting, said they have had run-ins with adults when they "do gaps": jump on their skateboards from a sidewalk to the street, or vice versa.

"Once we go into the road, people call the police and yell at us," Povilauskas said.

Inline skaters have their own special lexicon of flips, grabs, grinds, fakies, handplants and 360s, according to the only skating book on the shelves at a local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Diehards will have from dawn to dusk to practice those and hundreds of other moves, seven days a week.

"Skateboarders are just kids who are interested in their sport," Rahdert said. "They look a little funny, but they are not dangerous or menacing in the slightest."

Debbie Stambaugh, who directs the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, said activities targeting youth will help the area.

"It's much better if they're going to do it -- and the kids are doing it -- in a controlled environment, as opposed to being out in the street and the dangers involved with that," she said.

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