2018-06-22 / Front Page

South Portland skate park gets rolling, but where is still unknown

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Following the city’s inaugural skate park forum Monday, June 18, four points became abundantly clear. The first is that almost nobody opposes building a skate park at a reasonable cost because – thing two – if such places ever were bastions of juvenile delinquency, few believe that’s still the case today.

The other two points, however, were somewhat harder to reconcile. On one hand, most people think the best place for any public skating complex is Legere Park, on the outskirts of historic Knightville village. But then again, on the other hand, some don’t.

That, however, wasn’t exactly new news.

The drive to bring a skating facility to South Portland began nearly 18 months ago, when scooter enthusiast Emmons Whited, then 12, decided he was tired of having to beg his parents to schlep he As skate mom Liz Zak looks on, Kirsten McWilliams – mother of middle schooler Emmons Whited, who last year spearheaded efforts to build a public skate park in South Portland – jots down a fundraising idea for the project during a public forum held June 16 at the community center on Nelson Road. More than 25 people attended the meeting. (Duke Harrington photo) and his younger brother to skate parks in Portland or Bath.

Whited wrote the city council suggesting construction of a local skate park and, upon receipt of general encouragement, launched a petition drive, submitting 577 signatures on March 28, 2017, to demonstrate wide support for the idea.

Then, at an April 5, 2017, council meeting, Whited’s mom, Kirsten McWilliams, turned in a feasibility plan prepared by Bret LeBleu of Callahan + LeBleu Landscapes. LeBleu volunteered his services to the project, McWilliams said, and the plan showed how a skate park the size of the one in Portland might nestle neatly within Legere Park, at the corner of Waterman Drive and C Street, a spot many speakers at that meeting deemed to be underused.

District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan offered to spearhead the project and was in the process of setting up a neighborhood meeting on the topic for Knightville residents, but after an initial flurry of emails with Whited, he appeared to drop off the radar.

Prompted by McWilliams for an update on July 13, Morgan said in a July 25 reply that, following outcry over a proposed housing authority development on Ocean Street, Knightville residents were not of a mood to entertain additional disruptions to the status quo.

“I’ve been holding off this discussion because I now sense folks in Knightville may be resistant to any new development – on any scale,” he 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.”

There was some desultory effort to find an alternate location for the park – based on Morgan’s emails, going no further than a list of potential sites compiled in August by Assistant City Manager Josh Reny – but otherwise, the field lay fallow until November. That’s when Whited jumped back on the horn to ask for a status update, including exactly when the council workshop Morgan had promised to sponsor might take place.

Two days later, Morgan wrote his peers to say he needed help finding someplace other than Legere Park to host a cement skating bowl.

“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,’” he wrote.

At that point, Reny again forwarded his previous list of possible locations.

Morgan would eventually toss up his hands, declaring himself unable to find a suitable location for the skate park.

“In all my years on the council, this has proved to be (the most) difficult project for me. 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 at a May 22 meeting, when the council finally held a workshop on the skate park concept.

The council at large remained high on the idea, and, at that session, the baton was passed to District 2 Councilor Kate Lewis.

It was decided the first order of business should be to conduct a public forum to see how deep interest in a skate park ran, beyond Whited and his middle school pals. Twenty-six people turned out for that session, held June 18 at the community center on Nelson Road.

Nearly half of those present volunteered to serve on an ad hoc committee intended to shepherd the skate park to completion. Those names could be presented to the council for endorsement as soon as a July 10 meeting, Lewis said.

At that point the project will be fast tracked. Lewis said she hopes the new committee will begin meeting in mid July and settle on a location for the park by summer’s end. If all goes well, fundraising plans will be finalized in the fall, a vendor selected to build the site come spring, and by this time next year, shovels should be turning on site.

As Morgan predicted, there was some pushback — and all of it came from Knightville.

Everyone at the meeting endorsed the concept of building a skate park, but a few said the ideal spot would be someplace other than their dooryards. Legere Park may seem underutilized, they said, but that’s because it serves as a green space of quiet contemplation to downtown residents without yards of their own.

“I’d like to know who determined Legere Park is underutilized. I see people there all the time,” said A Street resident Troy Chase.

“Believe me, I’m all for a skate park, but I honestly believe you need to keep this away from residential areas because there are going to be a lot of people who are not in favor of this. You’re going to run into a lot of opposition there (in Knightville),” Chase sad. “The demographics down there are middle-aged and older. I haven’t talked to anyone down there who’s not for it, we agree it just needs to be somewhere else.”

B Street resident Caroline Hendry agreed.

“Knightville has a water treatment plant, some really ugly utility towers and all kinds of disastrous things, but at least we do have green space,” she said. “I’m wondering, why do we want to take up our green space and put down cement in a very small area?

“Most of those people (in Knightville) live in condos with no yards or gardens, or on very small lots,” Hendry said. “So, when you’re going and coming to work, that green space in Legere Park, while it’s passive, it’s calming. I think it’s important for us to have that in our lives.”

Hendry said a skate park is “a wonderful idea,” but said Knightville residents have already had things foisted upon them that “nobody wanted,” specifically calling out the four-story office building at 400 Waterman Drive that’s now home to the South Portland Housing Authority.

“I’m sure you are going to get pushback,” she said.

Melanie Wiker of B Street did not exactly push back – she wondered aloud why an indoor park was not a priority, for instance – but she did come armed with a host of logistical questions, including whether the water table is high enough in Knightville that a sunken bowl is even feasible.

Everyone at the meeting seemed to agree that a bowl of some sort is a build it or-bust amenity for any such facility. A simple flat area festooned with a few ramps is largely unappealing, they said.

“Would you rather have an in-ground pool or an above-ground pool?” Whited asked.

Still, not all Knightville residents are opposed to hosting a skate park.

“From the beginning when the petition first went out, I was an advocate of the skate park and I feel Legere (Park) is the perfect place for it,” said Ocean Street resident Barbara Psichos.

Whether in Legere Park or elsewhere, most at the meeting took the opposite tack from Chase, saying a skate park needs to go where there are people. For that reason, Wainwright Athletic Complex out on Highland Avenue was dismissed as a non-starter. Out-of-the-way facilities in other towns soon get run down, serving only as magnets for graffiti, drugs and crime, folks said.

“I’m 58 and I still skate,” said Meadowbrook resident Jeff Woodbury, observing that the sport is not exclusive to teens. “And I think you should look to Biddeford and Westbrook for an example of what happens to skate parks that are not near other things. They are deplorable. I won’t let my kids go to the one in Biddeford. It’s away from people and it attracts a bad element. It is, it’s sketchy.”

“I’m 40 and I still skate and have young kids who I’m hoping will follow in my footsteps,” said Jack Gundling of Lincoln Street. “But I grew up in Kennebunk and the park there was built out of they way and it quickly got pretty dilapidated and nobody went to it.”

“The advantage to Legere Park is that it’s really pretty much in the middle of the city,” said Pleasantdale resident Rosemarie De Angelis. “And, because it’s in a residential neighborhood, and there’s the shopping plaza next door, there’s always eyes on it. I think that’s a good thing. Nobody just drives by Wainwright on their way to nowhere. It’s a destination.”

De Angelis added there are two other parks in Knightville, including Mill Creek Park and Thomas Knight Park.

“But I think we have to acknowledge that, no matter where the park is, it’s going to hurt green space,” De Angelis said. “So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Legere Park or Wainwright or Bug Light – they’re all green space. But in none of them would a skate park consume the entire surface.”

City recreation operations manager Anthony Johnson said that, consistent with the April 2017 LeBleu plan, an 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot skate park – about the size of Portland’s – would only fill about half of Legere Park.

Although he said he was not advocating for any particular location, Johnson noted other key attributes of Legere Park. For one, it is near the Greenbelt Trail and on city bus routes. That’s considered a plus given the presumed age-range of the typical skate park aficionado. But, more importantly, Knightville is an area of town that is eligible for federal Community Development Block Grant funding, and that’s a gift horse that could ride into town wearing six-figure saddlebags.

Money will be a hurdle to clear, no matter where the park goes. More than a few at the meeting echoed Wiker’s call for an indoor facility because, after all, winter is coming.

Public Works Director Kevin Adams said funding will be “a major issue” to put up a building, no matter where it should fall on a scale from pallid to palatial.

“It’s an impediment, unless we purchase a vacant industrial building, but even then we’d have to come up with more funding to buy that than to just build a park,” he said.

Alternate locations to Legere Park suggested by those at the meeting included sites near Redbank Community Center or Mahoney Middle School, which is on track to be decommissioned as a school building and may, as some in the current city administration have suggested, become home to a new city hall. Chase, meanwhile, proffered the area of Mill Creek Park closest to Broadway.

It also was noted that the chosen developer of the former public works complex on O’Neil Street, Windward Development LLC, had included a skate park in preliminary design sketches for the site. However, Lewis said that concept had the park almost directly under the balconies of planned condo units.

“Well, if someone is going to build it (for us), I think that’s something we should consider,” said Cybil Kipp of Pillsbury Street.

The ad hoc skate committee, once formed, will have much to consider. Portland resident Tom Long, who owns Long’s Board Shop on Clark’s Pond Parkway, said both Portland and Bath are in the process of expanding their parks. So, in addition to being near people and on public transit lines, a spot with room for growth is ideal, he said. Additionally, a park that can accommodate all wheeled activities, including scooters, bikes and in-line skates, in addition to skateboards is preferable.

Whatever South Portland does, Long said, it should be aware that skating and scootering is a family activity now. It’s no longer the exclusive domain of the 1980s slacker, as the image persists in popular consciousness. In fact, come 2020, athletes worldwide will compete for skateboarding medals at the Olympics, and probably soon after gracing boxes of Wheaties.

“Skateboarding is not some fringe activity any longer,” Long said. “Municipalities are going to have to start stepping forward to make sure there are facilities for people who skateboard locally.”

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

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