Over a year after beginning the design phase for a downtown skatepark near the Highway 17 overpass on Meeting Street, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission appears to have scrapped its original plan and set its sights on a new location on the Charleston peninsula.
At a commission meeting Monday night, Park and Rec Executive Director Tom O'Rourke and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. were both tight-lipped about the size and location of the new site, which has not been purchased yet. "You're going to hear something in the next couple of weeks on that," O'Rourke said.
The commission voted Monday night "to instruct staff to negotiate the purchase of a piece of property in the City of Charleston on the peninsula for park land that is suitable for a regional skatepark" and to allow the design phase to begin immediately once the property is under contract.
"It's central, and there are a lot of people who would be able to walk, skate, and bike there," Riley said after the meeting. Dozens of skaters showed up to the meeting to voice their frustration about the skatepark project, which has been in the works since the commission allocated $2 million from county park revenues for the project in March 2010.
Due to the original Meeting Street site's proximity to highways, it was subject to a bevy of Department of Transportation construction requirements — including concrete thickness, drainage, and seismic safety — that drove the cost estimate up to $3.8 million. At the new site, O'Rourke says the commission would not be beholden to highway regulations. He also says the commission would not use any of the $2 million construction budget to purchase the land. Instead, he says, the money for the purchase will come from a $30 million general obligation bond that the commission authorized in 2011.
The bond, which was issued in anticipation of future tax revenues and did not require a tax increase, was to be used for purchasing park land and making improvements in existing parks. Projects funded by the bond include shoreline renourishment on Folly Beach, stabilization of structures at McLeod Plantation, and reimbursements for previous land purchases at Laurel Hill Plantation and the Bulow Hunt Club. According to O'Rourke, $17 million of bond money remains available, although "it's all earmarked." In order to secure funding for the land purchase, he says, the commission had to postpone paving projects for some trails in existing county parks.
O'Rourke says all 10,000 acres owned by the Park and Recreation Commission have been purchased with public money, so he has no qualms about spending tax dollars on the skatepark land purchase. "Why should our skaters be burdened with needing to pay for their park land when the family reunion people and the waterpark people and the kite-flying people don't have to pay for their park land?" he says.
As for the $2 million construction and design budget, O'Rourke says nearly $100,000 has been spent so far on design work from skatepark design company Team Pain, but those costs aren't a complete wash. "There were some fundamental designs that can be used in this skatepark site," O'Rourke says, "so we don't really think that was throwing money away."
At the commission meeting, before the commission announced that it was considering a new downtown site, skateboarding advocate Ryan Cockrell spoke in favor of an immediately available site for the skatepark on land already owned by park system. "We agree downtown is a perfect spot, but to us, at this point, perfect doesn't matter. It's not a perfect world," Cockrell said. "What would be perfect to us is to start skateboarding as soon as possible, whether that means putting the park here at James Island County Park or at other existing county parks." Cockrell's advocacy organization, Pour It Now, has been pushing for a park in Charleston for more than 10 years.
After the commission meeting, Charleston skater Jason Wagner said he was pleased with the outcome. "The sense of urgency was there to me, but that could easily be just smoke and mirrors," Wagner said. "Until they actually act on it, you know."