2017-03-03 / Front Page

South Portland youth hope idea has wheels

Petition launched to bring skate park to Knightville/Mill Creek
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — They say you can’t fight city hall. But one youngster in South Portland isn’t spoiling for a fight, he’s just trying to convince city councilors to support his call for the creation a skate park somewhere in the Knightville/Mill Creek area.

Like many boys his age, Willard Neighborhood native John Emmons Whited, age 11, is a scooter enthusiast. The problem, however, is he has no place to enjoy his sport. Preferring not to ride in the street, he sticks to his driveway and has actually resorted to building a small skating area in the basement of his family home, to use whenever he’s unable to cajole his parents, Scott Whited and Kirsten McWilliams, to chauffeur him over to the skate park in Portland.

“I just really, really, really enjoy scootering at the Portland skate park,” Emmons said in a Feb. 23 interview. “I’m constantly nagging my mom to bring me, which is hard because I have to get someone to drive me.”

It seemed a shame, Emmons thought, not to have a similar facility closer to home. And then the idea hit him – with skate parks in more than 40 cities and towns across Maine, why shouldn’t South Portland have one of its own?

But here’s where Emmons differs from other kids his age. He didn’t just grouse with friends about how South Portland should have a skate park at least as nice as its neighbors. When his father jokingly said Emmons should write a letter if he felt so strongly about it, Emmons sat down at his computer and did just that.

“Hello. My name is Emmons Whited,” he wrote in a Jan. 19 email to the seven city councilors. “I am 11 years old. I have lived in South Portland my entire life. I love it. It’s a great city. Willard Beach is amazing and so convenient. The schools are really nice and I learn a ton. It is such a friendly place, too. Everyone says hi and is kind. I love living in SoPo.

“I am writing to you about a skate park in SoPo. A lot of people think that it is a good idea and that it would be fun and a lot easier than going into Portland. Scootering and skateboarding are really popular right now. My brother and I are really into scootering and have taught ourselves some nice tricks.

“If we want to go to a skate park though, we have to drive all of the way into Portland or to Bath for one. It uses a lot of fuel, is hard because we have to get an adult to drive us, and is extremely inconvenient. We cannot go very often at all.”

Emmons reasoned to the council that in addition to reducing the carbon footprint of parents hauling their kids back and forth to area parks, a local facility would be “a community building place where people can get exercise.”

“It also could help prevent kids from unsafely riding on the street,” he added. “And it would also reduce damage of private property by having people not riding in someone’s driveway.

“South Portland is a growing city, and the skatepark will be an added attraction for people to enjoy. It is easy to maintain and cheap to construct,” he concluded, signing off by saying, “Thank you for considering this. Please let me know what steps I should take in order to convince the city to seriously consider a skatepark,” and asking how many petition signatures he would need in order to get his request on a future council agenda.

In another city, that might have been the end of it. But within hours of hitting send, Emmons had his first response. Before the week was out, nearly every councilor had taken time to reply.

Some messages were short and sweet.

“Good suggestion. Get as many signatures as you can. They influence people,” Councilor Brad Fox wrote.

The communication from Councilor Eben Rose was considerably longer, with Rose advising Emmons to created a sketch plan of what his ideal skate park might look like, and suggesting the southwest end of Thomas Knight Park as a potential location.

“Once you have the picture in your mind and some sketches on paper, then it becomes easier for other people to start to see what you have in mind, and then they can start to picture it, too,” Rose wrote.

Councilor Claude Morgan, who represents Emmons’ neighborhood, promised to pass the idea on to the city manager’s office, and vowed to support the project, but cautioned Emmons to not get his hopes up for quick action.

“I should tell you at the outset that municipal projects are famous for taking a lot of time,” Morgan wrote. “And there is no guarantee that the city will build a skate park. I just want you to hear that and understand that a lot of people will examine your proposal. And there will always be people who oppose it.”

Concerns that need to be addressed, Morgan said, include, “public and individual safety, disturbance of the peace, and cost.”

Meanwhile, Councilor Maxine Beecher noted that Emmons is not inventing the wheel, so to speak.

“I was on a committee many years ago to bring this recreation to our town but after frustration with getting the then council to move forward, we quit and walked away,” she wrote. “This today is a different council and I would support such a project. Keep me in the loop and I will do what I can to help you move this forward. I commend you for having the courage and fortitude to see a need and commit to it.”

In a follow-up letter, Emmons clarified that he proposes an outdoor, concrete park that would be low maintenance and not require staffing by parks and recreation officials. He also endorsed Rose’s Thomas Knight Park idea, deeming it “perfect.” In a later interview with the Sentry, he said location itself would help to curb graffiti, drug dealing, and other bad behavior come fear a skate park might attract, given that it would be in full view of thousands of commuters who would daily pass almost directly overhead on the Casco Bay Bridge.

“It’s pretty out in the open, so everyone can see what’s going on,” he said.

Emmons has since launched a petition on change.org with a goal of collecting 200 signatures to present to the city council. As of Monday, 182 people had signed on to the need for a skate park in South Portland.

And already, the petition has captured the attention of city staffers. In a Feb. 27 email to Emmons’ mother, Town Clerk Emily Scully said she had been keeping an eye on progress of the effort, and would place the petition on a council agenda whenever submitted.

“You should know that your son’s petition has already made its way to many departments within the city and sparked discussion from many department heads and we’re all excited to see where this momentum goes,” Scully wrote.

“It surprises me and it doesn’t,” McWilliams said last week of her son’s effort. “He’s pretty well-spoken and self-assured.”

On Tuesday, Emmons and a group of friends gathered outside Mahoney Middle School with their scooters. Each vowed to support the skate park plan and to help raise funds for it, even if the wheels of government turn slowly enough that they have outgrown the hobby before ribbons are cut on the final product.

“The next generation behind us can always use it. It’s for everyone,” said Jack Smart, age 11.

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