Gulfport divided over skate park location

Published May 5 2016

GULFPORT — For as long as Pat Kidder can remember, there has been a skate park in Gulfport.

First at the waterfront recreation center and then at the city's Tomlinson Park complex, skateboarders could practice their flips, spins and grinds.

"I grew up with the old (park) and made a few friends, exercised, got outside, didn't sit in front of the TV," Kidder, 25, told the City Council last month. "It kept me out of trouble."

In February, however, the city abruptly closed and padlocked the skate park, citing safety concerns about aging and broken equipment.

The City Council has applied for a $62,500 federal grant to help build a new park. But it seems unlikely that the city would put it at Tomlinson again, and people who live near a second proposed location near the Town Shores condominium community vow to oppose it there, too.

So where might a new skate park go?

In a city of just 2.8 square miles, every open space seems to border a neighborhood where at least some residents worry about crime and noise.

"There's got to be a place we can put a skateboard park that doesn't offend somebody," said council member Michael Fridovich. "Now where that is, I don't know."

But Mayor Sam Henderson said he is "not entirely convinced that we need a skate park in Gulfport. We've had one here one block from my house (at Tomlinson), and it's caused a lot of controversy."

The city will learn in late May or early June whether it gets the grant. If it does and then decides to proceed on a new park, the council would have to put matching funds in its 2016-2017 budget, select a location and agree to pay for maintenance and repairs there for at least 25 years.

In the meantime, the debate seems likely to continue, pitting young people against older people, neighborhood against neighborhood and neighbor against neighbor.

• • •

Skateboarding has been around since the late 1950s, when California beach surfers began attaching roller skates to boards to entertain themselves when there were no waves. Sidewalk Surfin' was a hit tune in 1964.

The sport has exploded in popularity in recent years. ESPN's X Games, which feature so-called extreme sports such as skateboarding, bungee jumping and mountain biking, began in 1995, and many cities have built impressive skate parks.

Tampa's renovated Perry Harvey Sr. Park, which opened April 3, includes a skate park. St. Petersburg plans to build a $1.6 million, 32,000-square-foot skate park at Campbell Park, across from Tropicana Field.

Nick Nicks, 41, is president of the St. Pete Skatepark Alliance, which champions skateboarders and advocates for skate parks.

He lives in Gulfport, a few blocks from both Tomlinson Park — at 19th Avenue S and 54th Street — and the second proposed location, at the Michael J. Yakes Recreation Center at 5730 Shore Blvd. S, just east of the Town Shores condo community.

As a youth, Nicks said, skateboarding was an important outlet for him and helped keep him out of trouble.

"I think there's more of a demand for it than (opponents) realize," said Nicks.

Skateboarding is most popular among teenagers and young people in their 20s, but older adults have been seen skating with their teens in Gulfport. Census data shows that the city of 12,100 has about 1,800 residents under 18.

• • •

Shortly after the skate park at Tomlinson was closed in February, the City Council voted unanimously to apply for the federal grant. Since the city had to specify a location for a new skate park, it listed the Yakes recreation center.

But council members assured residents that the grant could be amended and the final location would remain open for discussion.

At Tomlinson, there were constant complaints that the skate park contributed to crime. Yet a 2014 survey by the Police Department found that more than half the 74 respondents had not observed crime at the park and believed it helped young people stay out of trouble.

"There is absolutely no data that there is a crime problem at the skate park," said police Chief Robert Vincent.

He said the best way to combat potential crime at the skate park — wherever it goes — would be a full-time staff person on site.

That might not satisfy many residents at Town Shores, which lies just west of the Yakes recreation center.

Town Shores, a 55-and-older complex, has 1,327 units in 18 buildings. Many residents are original owners who are well over 55, and many are seasonal residents.

"The safety committee at Town Shores has taken the position that they are vehemently opposed, as am I, to the skate park being moved to the rec center," said Jean Proach. As president of the Master Association of Town Shores, Proach oversees the boards of all 18 buildings in Town Shores.

Living near the rec center is already a problem, she said. Some of the youths who congregate there slip into Town Shores to steal bicycles and kayaks and break into cars.

If the city puts a skate park there, the problems would get worse, Proach said. Because some residents are frail, they fear the young people skating on their sidewalks would jeopardize safety.

A flier posted around town shortly before the City Council's April 5 meeting urged skate park opponents to attend and speak out.

Skateboarders pose risks to pets and people using walkers and wheelchairs, the flier said. They contribute to vandalism, trespassing and noise, it said.

The flier seemed to galvanize skate park supporters, too.

A dozen supporters of all ages urged the council to build a skate park somewhere in Gulfport.

One of them was a 76-year-old resident of Town Shores.

Carrie Angel said she and her husband run a Sea Scouts program for kids ages 14-20 out of the Boca Ciega Yacht Club. A program of Boy Scouts of America, it promotes better citizenship and boating skills and knowledge through practical application.

"When kids have something to do, it keeps them out of trouble," Angel said.

Brigitta A. Shouppe is a student journalist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.