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Concrete conundrum

Why does Colorado have some of the best public skate parks in the nation?


Andrew Hook with a trashy ollie at Manitou skate park
  • Andrew Hook with a trashy ollie at Manitou skate park

F aced with the 15,000 square feet of sprawling, bulbous concrete in a dusty working-class town like Trinidad, awestruck skateboarders ponder different versions of the same question: What's a skate park like you doing in a place like this?

This isn't the only small town where skaters are asking themselves this question. Locales as unlikely as Cañon City, La Junta and Crested Butte have birthed some of the best skate parks this side of Denver.

Though statistics on skate parks are not cataloged by any central agency, many professionals in the industry rank Colorado behind only Oregon and Washington in terms of the quantity and quality of its free, public skate parks.

Yet there's no magic bullet answer to Colorado's skate park juggernaut. Rather, its source lies in a combination of youth agitation, a municipal manifestation of the "keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome and a growing consensus within local governments that skate parks are a valued community resource.

Up from the rubble

Once relics of the 1970s skateboard boom, private parks in legendary California locales like Upland and Del Mar saw their concrete waves smashed by bulldozers in the 1980s when skyrocketing liability costs forced their demise.

As a result, the sport was reinvented in the street. Boards grew smaller to accommodate a trick style that found skaters sending their boards into bafflingly technical paroxysms down staircases, hand railings, benches and curbs.

To skaters, appropriating pedestrian obstacles testified to their sport's ingenuity and resilience. To business owners and police it was little more than a public nuisance. And so, in cities and towns across America, the conflict raged, spawning the now-famous bumper sticker slogan: "Skateboarding Is Not A Crime."

Then two things happened in the late '90s, both indelibly stamped with the name Tony Hawk. In 1997, Activision released Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game and two years later, the real-life Hawk landed the "900" -- a two and a half spin aerial rotation on a vertical half pipe. Captured at the 1999 San Francisco X Games, the moment soon became skateboarding's shot heard round the world, and remains the most publicized skateboard trick of all time.

Though many skate parks were already in their planning stages, the publicity boom of Hawk's 900 helped lend mainstream legitimacy to the sport while deploying a new generation of skateboarders that needed a place to go.

Shawn Higgins takes in the view from the air above Manitou skate park.
  • Shawn Higgins takes in the view from the air above Manitou skate park.

Hard to please

Skate parks generally fall into two categories: those made out of concrete and those consisting of ready made or "prefab" obstacles laid out on a paved space. Local prefab parks can be found in Fountain, Monument and Woodland Park. Area Concrete parks can be found in the Goose Gossage Youth Sports Complex off of Garden of the Gods and Mark Dabling roads, and in Manitou Springs and Cañon City.

Unlike baseball fields or tennis courts, there's no single template for a good skate park. While they may share certain elements like staircases and handrails, seldom do you find two alike. As skateboarding encompasses a vast range of preferences and skill levels, rare is the park that pleases everyone.

As Colorado Springs manager of parks planning Terry Putman observes, "I have found that you cannot please skaters. They always have different preferences or someone somewhere else has a better one than we do."

Colorado is home to dozens of pristine concrete parks in Aurora, Highlands Ranch, Fort Collins and Boulder, and mountain locales like Aspen, Silverthorne and Montrose. The Front Range's shining star is Denver Skate Park, which opened in 2001 and at 60,000 square feet is the largest free public facility in the United States.

Mark Bernstein of Denver Parks and Recreation Department speculates that its acre and a half of skateable terrain is the most used of any of the city's parks, attracting a different demographic of users.

"It's been a pretty cool social experiment," Bernstein said. "We were really able to change a lot of attitudes, people who were initially against it, all the NIMBY [not in my back yard] attitude, once it was built -- that's really changed."

Changing attitudes

The NIMBY sentiment was something Perry Thomas of the Springs-based landscape and planning firm Thomas and Thomas observed when consulting with local residents about Manitou Springs' skate park.

"There was a great deal of fear about not wanting 'these sorts of people' in the area," said Thomas.

However, legendary skate park builder Tim Payne claimed that the most common post-construction complaint from towns is not of degenerate users, but that the park isn't big enough.

Payne and his company, Team Pain, have been involved with skateboarding for 20 years, building not only skate parks but also the ramps professionals compete on, including the X Games half pipe where Tony Hawk landed the 900.

Springs skater Chris Patton floats a backside at Caon City.
  • Springs skater Chris Patton floats a backside at Caon City.

"They always say that it's the most used year-round facility they've ever built, and gee, we should have built it bigger," said Payne.

East vs. West

Why Colorado, a state that trails the nation in so many other forms of public spending, is able to provide so many quality parks is a tough question to answer.

By way of comparison, the patrician New York suburb of Greenwich, Conn., where the average single family home goes for just under $1 million, charges $10 per skate session.

One of a small number of public skate parks in the northeast, Greenwich's park consists of prefab obstacles fenced in around a parking lot, its hours limited to the availability of an adult chaperone.

As one skate park Web site ( quips, "Hooray, another jail."

Visitors and town residents alike must pay to use the facility while wearing head-to-toe pads.

"Because it's a supervised, specialty thing, our town didn't want any tax dollars subsidizing the park," said Frank Gabriel of Greenwich's parks and recreation department.

The Greenwich park provides an interesting contrast with the new 30,000-square-foot public skate park in Castle Rock, 40 miles north of the Springs, which totaled out at $750,000. It boasts a picnic area and keeps lights on until 11 p.m.

Castle Rock's park planner Jeff Smullen said it was not difficult to convince the City Council of a need for a park, which was funded partly through the city's general fund and sales tax and fees assessed on new developments.

"There was a strong feeling in the community that we lacked two things: a movie theater and stuff for kids," Smullen said.

"These things are contagious"

So much concrete, so little time  Trinidad skatepark
  • So much concrete, so little time Trinidad skatepark

Colorado Springs parks manager Putman credits the boom in skate parks to its connection with snowboarding.

"The same users do both sports and are part of the same culture. Other states do not have that link," he said. "Some states also haven't seen the light that this [skateboarding] is here to stay, at least for a long time."

Chris Hildebrand, who designs and builds skate parks around country, including in Trinidad south of the Springs, credits Colorado's skate park bounty with a progressive attitude toward parks and recreation as well as the force of proximity.

"These things are contagious," Hildebrand said. "When one city does it, the neighboring towns follow suit."

An institutional support beam for Colorado skate park construction is Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a nonprofit foundation that funds various parks projects throughout the state. Last year, Trinidad received a GOCO award of $130,000 for its park -- now considered to be one of the most exciting skate parks in the state -- and this year the nonprofit was instrumental in assisting La Junta with over half the funding for its recently opened $235,000 facility.

Of the myriad Colorado towns and cities to build skate parks, Colorado Springs was one of the first in the state to pour concrete. The Goose Gossage park was built in 1997 for $80,000 and designed by park planner Allen Cox. In 1999, an addition was added with new obstacles.

[Gossage is] "more of a street park," said skateboarder Chris Patton. "Manitou is good for little kids to get started on and it's ... pleasant. Like many older Springs skaters (this reporter included) Patton regularly travels to parks throughout the state. For Patton's money, his park of choice is Cañon City, where he can often be found launching chest high ollies over the bowl's concrete tongue.

Sue me

While many towns kill skate park proposals because of fears of lawsuit liability, city attorneys throughout Colorado point to a lack of ensuing suits.

Colorado municipalities also enjoy the protection provided by a state statute called government immunity, which, according to Castle Rock's city attorney, Dian Durphy, protects cities and towns from a host of frivolous suits. "Unless there's something wrong in the park's construction, it would be very difficult for someone to sue." Durphy said.

Denver's assistant city attorney, Stan Sharoff, said the history of claim liability doesn't bear out fears of skater injury lawsuits. "I think it's a question of claim experience and there hasn't been a deluge of claims related to skate parks," Sharoff said.

Mitch Brian of SkatePark magazine notes that skate park construction is exploding as communities realize they can build the parks without losing their shirts and that the types of kids who use the facilities are not what they fear. According to Brian, the generally cited figure in the skate park industry is that the current number of 800 public skate parks in the United States will double in the next three years.

Colorado Springs parks manager Putman said he has plans for three new park projects one of which includes a skate park to be located within Memorial Park.

Noting the boom in construction that's transpired since one of his own staffers designed Gossage, Putman said, "I used to give lectures to other parks and recreation directors about skate park design. Now I wouldn't dare."

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