2017-04-21 / Front Page

Youth submit skate park petition

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The dream of creating a skate park in South Portland is one step closer to reality following submission of a petition to the city council at its April 5 meeting.

The project has been spearheaded by scooter enthusiast John Emmons Whited, age 11, who responded to his father’s advice that if he wanted a skate park so badly, he should write a letter to the city council, by sitting down and doing just that. Almost all members of the council responded to Whited’s letter, with some suggesting he start by circulating a petition to demonstrate support for his idea. So, Whited did that, too.

The petition, submitted to the city March 28, contained 577 signatures. Of those, 433 were collected online at petitioning website change.org. Most of those electronic signatures came from South Portland residents, with the rest submitted by people from Portland and other surrounding communities, many of whom included comments and notes that were submitted to the council along with their names. Whited and his friends also hand-collected an additional 144 signatures – including 92 from their Mahoney Middle School peers, along with a handful from students at Small Elementary, and the rest from adults.

Whited and friends appeared at the April 5 council meeting in support of the skate park idea and, following their comments, District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan volunteered to sponsor the proposal as a future workshop agenda item, with a second from Councilor Linda Cohen and support from parks and recreation department senior manager Lisa Thompson.

“That’s super impressive,” Mayor Patti Smith said of Whited’s petition drive. “Clearly, there is some desire, some passion, out there. A skate park would be great to have.”

“It sounds like an exciting thing for us to be doing,” Cohen agreed.

The senior member of the council, Maxine Beecher, with 12 years under her belt, said this is not the first time such an idea has been floated. She said this time things will turn out differently.

“I still have paperwork from where we tried to get this through before,” she said, “and it was because we didn’t have a council that would support it that it died. I think the council has changed and certainly if I can do anything to help, I’d be more than willing.”

Councilor Eben Rose suggested funds for the project could be included as part of the city’s annual capital improvement projects budget, while Community Development Coordinator Maeve Pistrang said the proposed park location, within the existing Legere Park, wedged in between Waterman Drive and C, D, and E streets, is within an area of the city eligible for funding from federal community development block grants.

Although Whited and his friends first targeted Thomas Knight Park as the best location in the city, to keep from having to pester parents for rides to skate park facilities in Portland, Scarborough, Bath and other places, the drive has shifted to Legere Park.

At the April 5 meeting, Whited’s mother, Kirsten McWilliams, submitted a feasibility plan prepared by Bret LeBleu of city firm Callahan + LeBleu Landscapes. LeBleu volunteered to donate his services to the project, McWilliams said, and the plan shows how a skate park the size of the one in Portland would nestle neatly within Legere Park, a spot many speakers at the April 5 meeting, including Knightville resident Barbara Psichos, said is currently “underutilized.”

In an April 3 letter from LeBleu also submitted by McWilliams, he said Legere Park is, “not just feasible, but a great fit.”

“The site offers existing infrastructure in the form of 32 (adjacent) parking spaces, fencing and plenty of open space,” LeBleu wrote. “There is enough room to include an 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot skate facility on site. This is similar in size to the facility in the city of Portland and is appropriate for a community of 20,000 to 25,000. The city already has maintenance crews taking care of the park.

“The site is accessible via multiple modes of transportation, with a bus stop on site, and it is just a few blocks to the Greenbelt Trail. The site is highly visible by cars and passersby and is easily monitored,” LeBleu wrote.

“The existing facilities will help defray some of the costs by limiting the construction to just the skate facility itself and not other site amenities,” LeBleu wrote. “While there is significant upfront cost in the design and construction, the long term maintenance is minimal, especially when compared to the manicured playing fields that are often given priority in society today. So, let’s stop telling skaters, ‘You can’t do that here,’ and give them a place to get outside, be active and be part of a community.”

Although project costs are still a big unknown, the website publicskatepark.org, claims most skate park facilities cost between $20 and $50 per square foot to build, with the average project falling closer to $40 per square foot.

“An 8,000-square-foot neighborhood skate park will be $320,000 and will serve a neighborhood of about 25,000 residents,” the site claims, but even a smaller 3,000 square foot park, costing about $120,000, would be large enough to include a few ramps and rails, and maybe even a small concrete bowl, enough to “support a few skaters at a time.”

Another website, skatepark.org, in July 2012 posted photos of 43 poured concrete parks from across the country, all just like the one Whited and his friends envision, and all built for less than $100,000. Some, it noted, cost as little as $30,000. A 3,000-square-foot park in Standish designed and built by Who Skates, cost $43,000, according to the site.

According to South Portland Community Planner Stephen Puleo, the council could put a concrete skating yard in Knightville without having to amend zoning, because it would be classified as a municipal facility. The project would only need to go before the planning board for a special exception exemption, he said, while City Planning Director Tex Haeuser said in a separate interview it might not even need that.

Both agreed that if the development site ends up being larger than 15,000 square feet (about 1/3 of an acre), those backing the skate park would need to file a site plan application for review by the planning board. Puleo also said that if the total impervious surface of the site was greater than 8,700 square feet (0.2 acres) that, too, would trigger site plan review.

“A skate park would be an open, public space to promote exercise, socializing and activity,” Whited told the council. “South Portland does not have many open spaces to offer and a skate park could be used by users of skateboards, scooters and BMX bikers of all ages. Furthermore, it would be an attraction for the city as we do not have one while Portland and other communities do, which would relieve our parents of having to drive us to a facility where we can be active and healthy and vibrant.

“A small skate park would be inexpensive to build and requires minimum upkeep and maintenance,” Whited said. “It would be easy to monitor and would last for generations.”

“I believe the space on Waterman Drive by the McDonald’s in Mill Creek is the perfect location,” Whited continued, referring to Legere Park. “It is reachable (by kids) from many neighborhoods and is not being used right now. It is central, open, public and can be easily monitored by police and others. I have got lots of positive support for this cause from people all across both the city and the country. I heard from Mikey DiPietro that every 10 years the people of South Portland have asked the city about a skate park but that the city has never complied. I think the time is now.”

“I think this would be a great project for the city of South Portland,” agreed Ackwood Road resident Jack Smart, 11. “It would give kids and teens a place to hang out and be active. There are many other communities that have skate parks and they are always filled. We like to go to these skate parks, but it is sometimes difficult to get there because they are so far away.

“I would like to believe that the creation of a skate park would keep kids and teens out of trouble and at the same time provide exercise,” Smart said. “We could even possibly get local businesses to donate time and money to take off a little burden from the taxpayers.”

“I’m going to get a little emotional. I’m so proud of these guys,” said Pillsbury Street resident Sybil Kipp, her voice cracking, fighting back tears as she took the podium at the April 5 council meeting. “I was part of the committee that put a playground in DiPietro Park and that has become such a center of that neighborhood. I think that park over by McDonald’s is under utilized and I think that if it was a place where families could go, it would be something that our community doesn’t have right now, and could serve just like the playground brought the community together over by Willard Square. So, I really hope you guys can consider it.

Noting that “the wheels are in motion,” Mayor Smith predicted the skate park proposal will be the subject of a city council workshop “sometime this summer.”

The April 5 petition presentation concluded with a round of applause from the council and audience members for Whited and his friends, along with a, “Well done,” from Smith.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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