New skate rules, new skate park 

Wheels keep rolling downtown

The Charleston peninsula hasn't had the best record in accommodating skaters. In 2006, a Charleston police officer shoved a teen over a Waterfront Park shrub. When video of the push went public a year later, it made national news (including a segment on Good Morning America). Meanwhile, other skaters were notching hefty fines for coasting through city districts where skating was prohibited.

In response, skaters held public events to call attention to a lack of resources on the peninsula, and Pour it Now, a Columbia-based group advocating for high-quality skateparks in South Carolina, rose up to lead the charge for publicly available skate space.

Recently, the city tweaked its policy on boards downtown. Meanwhile, the nonprofit effort for a skatepark has been wholly embraced by city and county recreation officials who are hopeful to see wheels rolling by 2012.

Old rules kept skaters out of particular zones downtown — mostly prohibiting them from business and tourist districts. The new rules replace the old district approach with specific rules against skating downtown on commercial streets and around schools. It also prevents skating on streets with a speed limit greater than 25 miles per hour and on athletic fields or tennis courts citywide, and it puts the maximum fine for violating the ordinance at $50.

Skateboarder Beau Parent says that he doesn't ride around downtown as much as he used to, but he doesn't get hassled much when he's downtown. He has seen some stereotyping when on his board.

"It's looked at as a rebel or punk sport," he says. "There definitely is some labeling when it comes to skateboarders."

And there are ways to avoid close calls with both police officers and the nearest bush, Parent says.

"There are a bunch of skate spots around Charleston," he says. "You just have to know the right people."

But when it comes to recommending a public place to skate, Parent suggests heading out of town to North Charleston. If county park officials and the people behind Pour it Now have anything to do with it, that will be changing in a few years.

Park to ride

On Friday, the nonprofit organizers sat down with Charleston County Parks and Recreation leaders to consider the scope of a new skatepark in the right-of-way at the Meeting Street on-ramp for Interstate 26.

The national advocacy group Skaters for Public Skateparks estimates skaters account for 16.5 percent of young people 5-24 years old and that a significant portion of those young people will use a park several times a week.

The county park system has traditionally avoided peninsular programs, leaving them to the city, says Thomas O'Rourke, executive director of county parks. But when city officials called saying they didn't know if the money was there for the project, the county was excited to step in.

To win the support of the county parks and recreation board, O'Rourke took members to a recreation conference in Salt Lake City, featuring several sessions on public skateparks. He also took them on a tour of a park.

"They got to physically see it and talk to skaters at a real park," he says.

The board, which has responded positively in the past to other non-traditional programs, like dog parks and water parks, has been supportive from the start, O'Rourke says.

But horror stories abound from other regions where government got involved in skateparks only to muck it up and provide a space that's impractical and unusable for most skaters. O'Rourke understands some apprehension from skaters.

"We haven't done a lot for this demographic," he says.

A big part of earning their trust will come from keeping the skating enthusiasts involved throughout the process. Decisions like the type of materials (concrete or wood) and the type of structures (quarter pipes, roll-ins, funboxes) need the insight of someone who will actually use the park.

"What the park system has always done is surround ourselves with the pros," he says, pointing to Pour it Now. "The group includes a lot of experts and passionate people representing the skate community."

O'Rourke says the county park budget currently taking shape for 2010 should include money for the park's design. He's hopeful that the 2011 budget will include money for construction. Early expectations had put the cost for the park well under $1 million, but O'Rourke expects it will take at least that much, if not more, to do it right.

"This will be a first class park," he says.

That includes providing opportunities for all ages, so that small children getting the first scuffs won't get run over by the grown-ups who have been thrashing on their boards for years.

And O'Rourke has more than his pride at stake in making this skatepark a success. He has dreams for the future.

"This probably won't be our last," he says.

Sean McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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