2018-05-25 / Front Page

Stalled skate park gets rolling once more

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Local students who support of building a skatepark in South Portland, on their way to Mahoney Middle School Wednesday morning, include, from left, Kipp Gill, Jacob Gross, Emmit Russel, Nick Reid, and Emmons Whited, who sparked debate on the topic with a January 2017 letter and March 2017 petition to the city council, who has spearheaded efforts to keep the idea alive ever since. According to City Manager Scott Morelli, a public meeting will soon be announced on the city website, southportland.org, at which residents can express interest in joining the work group. The current timeline calls on having a preliminary plan in place by the end of this summer, with construction to start in mid-2019. (Duke Harrington photo) Local students who support of building a skatepark in South Portland, on their way to Mahoney Middle School Wednesday morning, include, from left, Kipp Gill, Jacob Gross, Emmit Russel, Nick Reid, and Emmons Whited, who sparked debate on the topic with a January 2017 letter and March 2017 petition to the city council, who has spearheaded efforts to keep the idea alive ever since. According to City Manager Scott Morelli, a public meeting will soon be announced on the city website, southportland.org, at which residents can express interest in joining the work group. The current timeline calls on having a preliminary plan in place by the end of this summer, with construction to start in mid-2019. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — More than a year after expressing unanimous support for creation a skate park in South Portland, the city council is reiterating its desire to see that job done, but this time with a more concrete plan of action that could see the first cement forms being poured by early next summer.

At a workshop on the topic held Tuesday, May 22, the council tasked City Manager Scott Morelli with scheduling a public meeting on the topic. That session will most likely be held at the community center on Nelson Road. The hope, councilors said, is that enough attendees will step forward to serve on an ad hoc committee, which the council would then formally appoint.

The charge of this group, councilors agreed, would be to locate an appropriate site for the park and to finalize cost estimates for construction.

“I think that this working group, with the right stakeholders at the table, could put something together in a matter of months,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

More precisely, Morgan suggested that by fast tracking creation of the volunteer task force, and making clear the council’s sense of urgency to see the project to fruition, site selection could be made within the next four months.

All councilors were on board with that timeframe.

“I think we need to make this happen and not dither around with it forever,” said Councilor Sue Henderson. “Let’s have a skateboard park (plan) done by late summer at the latest.”

The drive to construct a skate park began 16 months ago with a single sixth-grade student.

Like many boys his age, Willard neighborhood native Emmons Whited, 13, who will enter eighth grade next year, is a scooter enthusiast. But without a local facility dedicated to safe exercise of the pastime, he and his friends are forced to ride in the streets or on the makeshift obstacles he and his younger brother Gus have cobbled together in the basement of their family home on Elsmere Avenue. The only other alternative is to pester his parents, Scott Whited and Kirsten McWilliams, for rides to skate parks located in Portland or Bath.

One day in late 2016, when Emmons was lamenting the lack of a more local park he could access without need of a chauffeur, his dad joked that if he felt so strongly about the issue, he should write a letter to the city council. The idea planted, Emmons sat down and did just that.

“Hello. My name is Emmons Whited,” he wrote in a Jan. 19, 2017, email to all 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 went on the reason to the council that in addition to reducing the carbon footprint of parents hauling their kids back and forth to area parks, a dedicated site in South Portland 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 skate park 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 skate park.”

Within hours of hitting send, Emmons had his first response. Before the week was out, nearly every councilor had taken time to reply, with most offering Emmons friendly advice on how best to advance his cause.

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 the boy 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.”

As it turned out, Morgan proved himself a proficient prognosticator of political inertia.

But Emmons, at least, was not resting on his laurels, content that by writing the council, he had done his part. Mobilizing his friends, Emmons circulated a petition to demonstrate support for his idea and reached out to area newspapers to publicize his efforts. On March 28, 2017, he submitted the petition with 577 signatures and community members did not just sign their names. Several rallied to the cause.

Although Emmons and his friends had at first deemed Thomas Knight Park in Knightville the “perfect” location for a skate park, momentum quickly shifted to nearby Legere Park, at the corner of Waterman Drive and E Street.

At an April 5, 2017, council meeting, 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 showed how a skate park the size of the one in Portland would nestle neatly within Legere Park, a spot many speakers at that meeting, including Knightville resident Barbara Psichos, deemed to be “underutilized.”

“The site offers existing infrastructure in the form of 32 (adjacent) parking spaces, fencing and plenty of open space,” LeBleu wrote in an April 3, 2017 letter. “There is enough room to include an 8,000- to 9,000-squarefoot 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 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, and the city already has maintenance crews taking care of the park,” LeBleu wrote.

Although project costs were a big unknown, the website publicskatepark.org, claims most such 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 skate park like the one in Portland was estimated to cost $320,000. Community Planner Stephen Puleo said the park could be built in Knightville without having to amend zoning, because it could be classified as a municipal facility. Better yet, Community Development Coordinator Maeve Pistrang said any skate park located within Knightville would be eligible for federal funding using Community Development Block Grants.

At that April 2017 meeting Morgan volunteered to sponsor the proposal as a future workshop agenda item, winning a second from Linda Cohen and staff support from parks and recreation department senior manager Lisa Thompson.

That led to a flurry of planning emails in May 2017, largely between Morgan and Emmons, but also pulling in data from other sources. Within weeks of the story hitting local papers, Morgan has noted, skate park firms in Massachusetts and North Carolina, presumably alerted via the magic of the internet, reached out to offer their expertise.

That trail of emails left off with Morgan saying he planned to schedule a neighborhood meeting in Knightville to gauge public sentiment for placing a skate park there. By the end of May, however, the emails stopped. In a July 13 email, McWilliams inquired about the status of that meeting.

In a July 21 response, Kevin Adams, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said work had been waylaid a bit by Thompson’s departure from the city payroll. Then, on July 25, Morgan said he had elected not to move forward with the neighborhood meeting. In light of outcry over a housing authority proposal for Ocean Street, Knightville residents were still too shell shocked to suffer another affront to their status quo so soon, he said.

“I’ve been holding off this discussion because I now sense folks in Knightville may be resistant to any new development – on any scale,” Morgan wrote. “It may feel like a new threat to the ties that bind their community. So, I wanted to let folks there cool down a bit from their last encounter with change. Timing. One of the variables that flies out of reach just when you’re ready to hang your hat on it.”

As possible alternatives, Morgan suggested placing the proposed skate park in Brick Hill or on the property of the former public works garage, off O’Neil Street.

Morelli forwarded that email to Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, who on Aug. 3 replied, “This is quite challenging because these types of facilities are rarely ever given ‘prime’ real estate.”

“If located near residential (homes) then NIMBY should be expected. Publicly owned spaces are fairly hard to come by, especially if it involves turning what is currently an open space park into a skate park,” Reny said.

Among the best possible locations, Reny said, were Legere Park, a 1.57-acre open space adjacent to community center and high school on Evans Street, on land next to Mahoney or Memorial middle schools, and Sawyer Park, on Westbrook Street.

As for other sites, Wainwright Athletic Complex and Thomas Knight Park both “lack visibility,” Reny said, while Bug Light Park, “would not be best use of that land.” Jordan Park has historical use restrictions, Reny said, land next to the Redbank Community Center was “being considered for another recreational amenity as part of West End master plan, and lacks visibility,” and Ge Erskine Park “would essentially put kibosh on the pedestrian bridge plan.”

And there things stood until late September, when Cedar Street resident Lisa Trundy (on Sept. 25), and LeBlue (on Sept. 27) inquired about a status update.

A Freedom of Access Act request for emails to and from Morgan about the skate park turned up 50 emails, but no reply to Trundy or LeBlue. Morgan has declined to be interviewed.

There also was no reply, at least via email, to Emmons himself, who wrote a Nov. 11 email to ask why the council workshop Morgan had promised, if not the Knightville meeting, had never come off.

“I am disappointed. Could I please get an explanation?” he wrote. “My friends and I worked very hard on this, and it would be a disappointment if it fell flat just because of no responses from the council. I would like some transparency.

“I continue to believe, as do many others, that a skate park is a doable option that would be a great addition to the city. I am not really sure what is keeping us from looking into it,” he wrote.

Two days later, Morgan sent an email to his peers on the council.

“Folks, I need some help with this,” he wrote. “I am unable to get any traction on the topic. I’ve spoken with folks who are influential in Knightville and they are tepid to disagreeable on the idea of a skate park in their ‘hood. And they are now embarked on a review of implementing a master plan there. Does the city own any other properties that we might contemplate housing a skate park? Knightville had CDGB funds. Not sure about other areas of the city. Anyway. This is my bad. I can’t seem to advance this forward without viable site options. Can you help me?”

On Nov. 13, at the request of Morelli, Reny resent his list of options from August.

Finally, on Feb. 12, Morgan wrote to Morelli to say he and Councilor Adrian Dowling had “noodled some ideas” about putting the skate park in a portion of the city golf course property.

In a March 21 email, Adams said that was not a possibility.

“There is no room to put it on the golf course without doing a MAJOR renovation project, relocating and redesigning holes, irrigation systems, etc. ($$$$$$$),” he wrote.

Later, Dowling went to work using the city’s GIS mapping system to locate a host of potential locations, focusing primarily on vacant lots already owned by the city.

In all my years on the council this has proved to be (the most) difficult project for me,” Morgan said, of the site search before Dowling chimed in. “Every time I throw a location out, run it by staff, get staff comments, it’s usually a thumbs down. There’s always some reason,” he said.

“But I do think that the last three and four spots that Councilor Dowling shared with me were really ripe and good,” he said.

However, Morgan begged off continuing as the council liaison for the project, saying skate parks were well outside his wheelhouse.

“I’d probably break a hip,” he said.

Instead, Councilor Kate Lewis stepped forward to take the lead.

In addition to Emmons, seven people got up and spoke in favor of the skate park during a May 22 meeting, many of whom, he later noted, “weren’t even here for our issue.”

As Councilor Maxine Beecher noted, times have changed and there is far less resistance to skate parks in the city than there once was, even as recently as 2005 when a previous proposal died from admitted council disinterest.

Still, there may be those who continue to harbor feelings of mistrust for spots that act as a magnet for teenage boys, Beecher said, but she would have none of it.

“I am so tired of hearing people say the sound of children playing bothers me. Well you know what, kids smoking dope it the woods are real quiet,” she said.

The biggest obstacle, however, will be money, especially if the park is placed somewhere not eligible for federal grant money

“There’s got to be some people out there who support this type of sport who’d want to give us some money,” Cohen said.

“Or give us some land,” Dowling added.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. But on Wednesday, as he and his friends skated to school, Emmons said he is just happy to see his skate park idea back on the radar.

“I’m really excited for that,” he said. “I still really believe this is a good idea that can be something really great for the city.”

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

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