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Next: City of wheeled sports?

A City Council group looks at using recreation funds to build places for skateboarders, BMX bikers and inline skaters.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's an idea that would have gone nowhere back when St. Petersburg was primarily a retirement town: using public money to build dream terrain for skateboarders, BMX bikers and inline skaters.

But this is a town with a newly installed younger mayor and lots of younger new City Council members. Not only that, but there's $14.4-million earmarked for recreation and beautification sitting in the bank from the council's sale of the city's Weeki Wachee Spring property to water regulators.

The City Council approved member John Bryan's recommendation to form the Special Subcommittee on Wheeled Recreation last week. The new group met for the first time Tuesday morning, excited about the idea of creating places for people to engage in "wheeled sports," and quickly appointed Bryan chairman.

Within 40 minutes, the subcommittee set a rough list of priorities. First, it will look into building a new skate and freestyle bicycling park. Then it will consider a new BMX course, then a new roller hockey rink and then Pinellas Trail-like "sidewalks for people on the move," special courses on which people could jog, bicycle and skate, apart from walkers.

On the suggestion of committee member Richard Kriseman, they agreed to make their fifth priority the development of a velodrome, an oval bicycling track.

All of this is wildly conceptual for now.

The special subcommittee has lots of research ahead of it and must eventually win the support of permanent City Council subcommittees and the full City Council. The city would have to deal with the issue of liability and find a workable site for each project.

But the subcommittee members spoke Tuesday like people who have the energy to work through all those details. The city has good playgrounds for elementary-age children and great recreational programs for adults, Bryan told the meeting in his opening remarks.

"But the segment that's left out is the one too old to play on the playground and too young to play in the men's basketball league -- the age that's prone to get into trouble," Bryan said.

City Leisure Services Administrator Lee Metzger told them there are things for teenagers to do. It's just that not all teenagers fancy themselves football, baseball or soccer players. The city doesn't provide many resources for skateboarders, skaters, roller hockey players and bicyclists.

There's a BMX course for offroad bike racing at Walter Fuller Park in western St. Petersburg that Metzger said is so popular there's not enough room for all the bikers and their families many weekends. And there's a small city skateboard park on what used to be tennis courts in Coquina Key Park, but it has not been used to its full potential.

Member James Bennett said he often drives his son to a private skate park on Ulmerton Road, north of the city.

St. Petersburg attorney George Rahdert (who often does First Amendment legal work for the St. Petersburg Times) formed a corporation to operate the Coquina Key skate park under a contract with the city, in part to provide his sons a safe place to skateboard.

Rahdert was not at Tuesday's meeting but said later that the Coquina Key project has proved that a skate park can be an asset, not an annoyance to neighborhoods, and that kids will use a legal place to skate if one is provided. He said neighbors narrowly approved the park at first but heartily asked it to stay after the first year.

A small admission fee helps pay the cost of adult supervisors.

"To use the term of skaters, there's a great vibe at the park," Rahdert said. "It's very peaceful. The older kids help the younger kids. The managers don't allow profanity or acts of violence or anger, and there's not much of that anyway. They enforce (wearing) helmets."

Rahdert's corporation pays a small rent to the city and invested the money to build ramps for the skaters.

"I really subsidized it just to get the first olive out of the bottle," Rahdert said. "It's kind of a different treatment of this particular sport. If the city would make an investment in (a new) facility, it would pretty much run itself."

If St. Petersburg continues this effort to pave a pathway for wheeled sports, it will join a list of cities, especially in the West, that have been doing so.

Bryan visited the under-construction Aurora Wheel Park on a recent trip to Aurora, Colo., where that city will provide roller hockey, BMX and skateboard areas. It made him think about his own city.

"We have the Weeki Wachee money sitting there earning interest," he said.

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