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Lawton Skatepark caught in Catch 22

By Gloria Diaz

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-01-24


Whatever your opinion of skateboarders, they’re here to stay. With our nation saddled with obese adults and an ever-increasing number of obese children, one would think Fort Wayne would applaud the skateboard and inline skating facility near Lawton Park.

However, according to a poll in the November 29 News Sentinel, 23 respondents
voted “yes” to the question, “do you think that city employees should supervise activity at the city’s skate park?” Perhaps those respondents didn’t realize that the park itself wouldn’t have been a reality had it not been for S.B. 141, which passed the House in 2001, and lifted liability from cities that built extreme sports parks in their towns. 57% responded “no” to the question, with many stating that it is the parent’s job to supervise
their own children, not the city’s responsibility. And those who helped bring the skatepark to Fort Wayne echo that sentiment.

So is the skate park a good idea so far? Or is it a case of giving something to kids who aren’t going to respect the rules?

The total cost of the park was $651,574, with $280,574 coming from the city. The rest came from private donations, most from local and other foundations, which include English, Bonter Mitchell, Paul Clarke, Goldstein, the Journal Gazette and the Tony Hawk Foundation. Hawk, probably the most famous skateboarder ever, donated $25,000, which is the top amount given from that foundation.

Locally, funding was started by three fathers, George Huber, Tom Kimbrough, and Andy Brooks. The three were instrumental in getting the facility built by hiring skatepark designer Wally Hollyday of California Skateparks. The facility is not even six months old, and it’s already made an impression: the Excellence in Concrete Construction award, given by the Indiana Redi-Mix Concrete Association. On a recent inspection of the park by this writer, the concrete slopes and steps were smoother than any Fort Wayne city sidewalk or street had a right to be.

And what has the response been among skaters?

“Fabulous,” says Sarah Nichter, public information officer for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation. “The skateboarders and in-line skaters come from quite a large region. We have spoken to people from Canada, even. I occasionally speak to young men who call concerning what hours it’s open and stuff. I recently spoke to a young man from Kokomo who drives up every weekend. And he just wanted to be sure he could still skate at night.”

Officially, the park is open until 11 p.m. But the park’s lights were vandalized, meaning shortened skating hours. Those wanting to skate after dinner will have to eat very early, or wait until summer.

It’s an inconvenience to skaters, but the vandalism is something that has to be dealt with.

“Any park facility can be a victim,” says Nichter. “The high usage of that park and also the location, has really kept the vandalism down.”

The park is in the sector of the city that Captain Paul Smith patrols. While it’s his job to look in on the park, it’s not his job to spend all his time being a babysitter there. He feels parents need to supervise their children, particularly the smaller kids, just in case there’s an injury. In one case, because the child’s mother was there, she was able to get him to a medical care facility without any delay.

“We had a nine-year-old down there get injured; cracked his head, and his mother was right there to take him to the hospital. See, that’s why I’m thinking at a certain age point, they probably should have some parental supervision, just in case they’re injured,” said Smith.

“We have really good kids down there, really enjoying themselves, but you know, all it takes is a couple of knuckleheads to come in there and kind of give it a bad name,” Smith said in a telephone interview. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if parents didn’t just drop their kids off. At a facility where there isn’t any supervision by the city because of liability concerns, parents need to make sure their kids aren’t causing any trouble. It may seem like a Catch 22, but one of the reasons why the Lawton Skatepark is a reality is because the city isn’t required to supervise the skaters. If the city had to provide supervision, it would also be liable for any injuries. Make the city responsible for injuries, and the skatepark wouldn’t have been built.

“When I’m down there, there’s a very small percentage of parents actually involved, watching their kids,” said Smith. “I think a lot of them maybe drop ‘em off, then come back and pick them up. If you cruise by, you’ll see parents on the benches watching, but for the most part, I would say, (they’re) probably not (watching their kids).”

If it were up to him, Smith would watch his kids if they wanted to use the skatepark.

When asked if the park is helping to reduce damage that skaters have done to city property prior to when the facility was built, Smith said he didn’t have any firm figures on that. “There’s a high probability that it probably has. The one thing I’ve noticed, birds of a feather flock together, and it’s no different with skaters. They like to be around other skaters. And I do not see some of the skaters down in Freimann like I used to.”

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Part of the reason for that is the ban on skateboarding downtown. Damage was being done to the grounds of the courthouse, as well as benches, ledges and anything else in the area that could be used to do skating tricks on. In Freimann Square, the sidewalks have images of a skateboarder with a red circle slash over it. No skateboarding. Of course, skateboarding, like the bumper sticker says, is not a crime. It’s a form of exercise, and has that daredevil aspect about it that appeals to teenage boys. So what happens when they take away your sport? You take action. And, you get your dad involved.

Lee Huber was an 11-year-old kid who noticed the ban on skateboarding a few years ago when Graham Richard took office. He contacted the Mayor after a gathering of skaters showed up at the library wanting to discuss the possibility of building a skatepark in the city.

Huber wrote the Mayor asking how he could help.

“Basically it just stated that I thought we really needed a skatepark in Fort Wayne ... and that it would stop a lot of the skating downtown,” says Huber, in a phone interview. Huber added, in his letter, that he and his dad would be willing to form a committee to guide the skatepark from idea to actual completion.

Greg Purcell, then head of the Fort Wayne Parks Department, contacted Lee’s father, George, to see if he would head up an effort to get the skatepark built.

“So I talked to Greg and said I would do that, and then I enlisted two others, Tom Kimbrough and Andy Brooks to help, because they each had a son that was a friend of my middle son, Tyler, and were rollerbladers and skateboarders,” says George Huber.

“They also were people active in our community, so I thought they would be helpful. So the three of us then went about trying to put it together.”

For Huber, it was a chance to educate his sons in how to be a positive influence in the community and to show if there is a need for something, how to get it to happen. The first step was not how to get the money for it, but to change a law. Fortunately, Huber had the local support of a couple of politicians who saw the benefits of having a gathering place for youth to practice their sport.

“We all met, and the first thing we had to do was ge the law changed,” says Huber. “The current law at the time ...would have allowed the city to be sued if someone got injured at the park. And there were only three other states in the country that had passed a law, California, Texas and Florida that excluded the state or the municipality from any liability if this law was passed. And so the parks department actually put it together based on the other three states that had passed it and went and got David Long and Win Moses to sponsor the bill for both the Senate and House respectively.”

Huber’s children, along with Brooks’ and Kimbrough’s children, went down and testified in front of the Indiana House and Senate subcommittees to help pass the law. Thus, Indiana became only the fourth state in the union to lift any liability concerns resulting from anyone using a skatepark. The law also allowed other skateparks in the state to be built sooner, rather than later.

Huber wasn’t surprised the bill got passed, although he was surprised at the support that came in for it. Huber’s son, Lee says the most challenging was getting the bill passed. The easy part, which may come as a surprise to those who think the park is a waste of money, was getting the funding for the park.

“Getting the money raised was fairly easy, thanks to the grant the Tony Hawk Foundation gave us,” says Lee. He actually did get to meet Hawk himself, when he did a demo at last summer’s Indiana State Fair.

The site, near Lawton Park, was chosen for a number of reasons. It’s close to a ball diamond, a playground, Science Central and downtown, so that it could be reached by public transportation and to make it family-friendly. Once the site was picked, Wally Hollyday, of California Skateparks, was chosen to design the facility. A visit to www.skatedesign.com/new%20pages/fortwayne.html shows the Lawton Skatepark in all its glory. According to the list, Fort Wayne’s facility is one of the larger ones Hollyday and his company has built. While it’s not as big as Lakewood — which was more than 70,000 square feet and Hollyday’s the first park Hollyday ever built — the Lawton Skatepark is around 15,000 square feet and one of his favorites. Beginners, intermediate and advanced skaters have plenty of obstacles to challenge their skills. It is the third skate park Hollyday has built in Indiana. In a September 2, 2004, News Sentinel article,
Hollyday said of the park, “It shows what can happen when the community can stick behind something. With the city and parks department, it is a neat example of public and private ownership.”

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