CLEARWATER — Skateboarding isn't a crime, says a bumper sticker on the front door of a Clearwater Beach shop.
But on the sidewalks nearby, new signs say: No skateboards per city ordinance.
The city of Clearwater posted these signs about a week ago without any advance notice or public discussion. It is now banning skateboarding in two Clearwater Beach tourism hotspots, the Mandalay Avenue retail district and the BeachWalk promenade. The penalty is an $88 ticket.
The city acted at the urging of nearly a dozen Mandalay Avenue business owners who complain that young skateboarders have become a safety hazard in what's supposed to be a pedestrian-friendly area, and that the kids are rude to tourists. For these businesses, the last straw was a recent incident where a 14-year-old skater cursed at a store owner and blew his nose on a female customer's leg.
But the sudden crackdown came as a shock to skateboarders and the owners of two shops that sell boards right on Mandalay Avenue. They say a blanket ban on skateboarding is a huge overreaction. In a matter of days, one shop has collected hundreds of signatures on a petition calling to end the ban.
The issue reveals a cultural divide between people who view skateboarding as a dangerous nuisance and others who see it as a harmless part of beach culture.
"It's a sidewalk. It's a sideWALK. It's a place for people to walk. Skateboards shouldn't be legal there," says Marla Winner, the 76-year-old co-owner of the Mandalay Grill.
"It's the no-fun beach," says Skip Maxwell, owner of the Double Barrel Board Shop. "There are always going to be a few bad apples, but most kids and adults who skateboard on the beach aren't harming anybody."
The city's view
City Manager Bill Horne says Clearwater is taking action to curb inappropriate behavior by juveniles who are endangering pedestrians' safety on sidewalks.
He says the city is simply enforcing a skateboarding ordinance that's been on the books since 1998. That law forbids boarding on property where "No skateboarding" signs are posted. Those signs can be seen in a few spots around town such as the Harborview Center.
After Horne received a letter signed by the owners of 11 Mandalay Avenue businesses, he spoke with police officials and City Council members and then had the signs posted on the beach.
The skateboard ban includes the scenic BeachWalk because the city says the $30 million project is showing wear and tear from skaters grinding on its curbs and low concrete walls.
City spokeswoman Joelle Castelli notes that there are plenty of other places in Clearwater where people can skateboard. Mayor Frank Hibbard intends to hold a community meeting soon about the issue at the Beach Recreation Center.
For now, police on the beach are issuing warnings to skateboarders, not tickets — unless the skater has already been warned.
Made for longboarding
Three 16-year-olds are skateboarding down Mandalay Avenue in broad daylight. They know it's against the law now, and they're outraged about it. They feel they're being discriminated against.
"They're just trying to make the tourists happy," complains Ethan Murphy.
"They're going way too hard on kids," says Ariel Wallace. "The beach is made for longboarding."
"Longboards" are longer skateboards designed for comfortable long-distance riding, not for flipping on half-pipes or grinding on rails.
They sell a lot of them inside the Mandalay Surf Shop, which has been in business on Clearwater Beach for 30 years.
Tourism-industry workers like parking valets and bartenders use longboards as transportation to get to their jobs since there's not enough parking on the beach, says Surf Shop manager Zak Franklin, 29. Next to his cash register is a petition signed by more than 200 people, mostly longboarders.
Franklin expects that enforcing a skateboarding ban will be a "nonstop headache" for police.
The Surf Shop is at the north end of the Mandalay Avenue retail district. At the south end, near the Clearwater Beach Roundabout, a cluster of merchants say they've had it with skateboarders.
"I have no problem with the longboarders moving up and down the street," says Angelo Kontos, 34-year-old owner of the Blue Lagoon, a shop that sells Ed Hardy designer T-shirts.
But he and his neighbors are sick of groups of skateboarding kids congregating in front of their stores, doing tricks, damaging property and unleashing streams of profanity. They say it's gotten worse since a gaming arcade opened on their block.
"They jump off my stairs, they terrorize customers," says Allan Rimar, owner of the Swim & Play apparel shop. "I've seen so many near-misses on the sidewalk."
"One almost hit me the other day," says Marva Winner of the Mandalay Grill.
Some of them wish the city would open a small skate park on the beach.
Bill McKenna, longtime owner of the Mandalay Surf Shop, suggests a more localized skating ban. It would include the sidewalk in front of these stores on the east side of the 300 block of Mandalay, across from the Clearwater Beach Hilton.
"If they want to have a skateboarding ban in their little area, that's fine," McKenna said. "Why do it on the whole beach? The whole thing seems like overkill."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.