After years of buzz, a fundraising effort and a feasibility study, a new skate park seemed to be in Roanoke’s future, but a place for kids to slide, grind, flip and carve is notably absent from the city’s new parks and recreation master plan.
A facility to replace the deteriorating skate park beneath Wasena Bridge is nowhere to be found in the list of priority facilities in the plan, even for 10 years out or more.
Skate park advocates are left feeling burned by being left out and say the exclusion undercuts their ability to raise private funds for the project, but some members of Roanoke’s city council are prepared to push for putting a skate park into the city’s long-term plans when the council considers the master plan Monday night.
“I’m not saying there’s not a need for a skate park,” said Parks and Recreation Director Michael Clark. He wanted to see it in the plan, he said. “What we have, it’s crap.”
The feasibility study the city paid for identified Wasena as the best location for a new skate park and laid out a three-phase plan for a new concrete, low-maintenance facility with a total price tag of $1.5 million. The first phase, including optional features, came in under $500,000.
But the priorities identified in the master plan are based on a statistically valid survey in which respondents placed a skate park near the bottom of needs — where it’s been in surveys in past years.
“It’s hard for us to leapfrog that facility over others that the community has told us are a higher priority for them,” Clark said.
In a nonscientific, open survey that was part of the master plan process, the skate park proved far more popular, but because anybody can complete that survey, it poorly reflects the city’s demographic profile and carried far less weight in influence priorities, Clark said.
The statistically valid survey identified items like greenways, upgraded pools and recreation centers, dogparks and indoor walking trails as priorities.
Keri Garnett, leader of the Roanoke Skatepark Initiative, which has for four years partnered with Clark and his department to assess how to get a new park, said the survey methods used fail to capture the energy and popularity of skateboarding here.
Salem and Lynchburg have quality facilities, yet Roanoke, which aims to be a progressive place friendly to the outdoors , isn’t willing to invest in one, said Garnett and William Sellari, a Skatepark Initiative board member.
Sellari said after years of being viewed as a kind of outlaw sport, he was glad to work with Clark and his department because it seemed like the city’s view of skateboarding was changing.
They took Clark’s direction, he and Garnett said, doing everything he suggested to make the case, including raising more than $20,000 on their own. They were encouraged by the feasibility study, too.
When the master plan was underway, Garnett said, “I expected to see the skate park in the top 10 of amenities that were needed or desired and … and mention of the [public/private] partnership for the first phase.”
The total absence of a skate park among the plan’s priorities is vexing.
“I can understand and appreciate that,” Clark said. “They’re passionate about this … but I made it no secret through this whole process that it all comes down to where it lands in that priority ranking in the master plan.”
Garnett and Sellari said the most damaging aspect of the exclusion is it undermines their ability to raise funds to pay for the park privately, as Clark has suggested. Both private donors and foundations that give large grants aren’t likely to give to a project that the city seems uninterested in.
Clark pointed to a letter of intent he sent to Garnett in 2017 to indicate the city’s support to use for fundraising purposes.
“In the event that your organization is able to solicit broad reaching citizen support, as well as a significant financial contribution,” the letter reads, “the Department will entertain the possibility of working cooperatively with your organization on the planning of a new skate facility.”
Garnett and Sellari called the letter a weak endorsement, and said it’s now undermined by the skate park’s exclusion from master plan.
“That’s not a letter of support,” said Councilwoman Michelle Davis, a skate park supporter.
The issue is complicated by the proposed site — near the Wasena Bridge, which is slated to be replaced in the next few years.
Clark said with that in the works, even if funding was at hand, building a new skate park where the study suggested is impossible until the bridge is complete, five years out or more.
Sellari said the bridge replacement also means the existing skate park, as decrepit as it is, will be gone with no plan to replace it.
When the council considers the master plan Monday, adding a skate park to the mix in some fashion will have a couple of supporters in Davis and Vice Mayor Joe Cobb.
Cobb has spent some time getting to know some skateboarders recently, and he’s impressed with the sport’s creativity and how it’s a form of expression.
He believes the master plan ought to have a balance between addressing more pressing needs and desires, and also being visionary — a quality lacking in the plan, he said.
“If you don’t identify something as something that’s hoped for, it can easily disappear,” he said.
Davis doesn’t think the skate park was given due consideration.
A survey “is not the end all be all,” she said. “You use it to inform, but there are always intangibles in any kind of decision making process.”
Davis said she’s aware of a strong skateboarding community in the region, and that it’s a sport that’s racially, ethnically and economically diverse.
“It’s something we should support as an outdoor community,” she said.
While data is important, Davis said, there’s a reason the master plan is presented to the council for its approval.
“We are able to tell the administration to investigate things further,” she said. Davis isn’t sure what the process would look like, but on Monday she intends to suggest that “we put some intentional effort toward finding alternatives that would allow us to continue the conversation about the skate park.”