Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Follow That Fish Story
Next story: Hail, Jane Corwin!

Slow Goes the Downtown Skate Park

JP Gillespie skates the makeshift park at Ohio and Miami Streets. (photo by Jason Stankiewicz)

On the corner of Ohio and Miami streets, in the shadow of long-abandoned industrial silos and decaying factories, stands a makeshift skatepark. It’s not awe-inspiring, just a few ramps and some well placed cement blocks. But the park wasn’t made by the City of Buffalo, and it had no backing from major banks or federal funds. It was put together by a group of frustrated skaters and has become so crucial for the local scene that police now tell stray skaters to get off the street and head to this technically illegal venue.

This couldn’t fit better with the sport’s outlaw image: a clan of renegade skaters taking a slice of industrial fallout and carving an existence out of it. Even Nike was so enamored with the scene that the company featured the pirate skatepark in one of its sports catalogs.

But skating has grown up. Its misfit past will always color it, but like a punk in a suit and tie, it has become more accepted, popular, and legitimate. Jocks now frequent skate shops, high schools set up teams (mostly in California, of course), and high-quality, regularly used skate parks have become a common fixture in American cities. Orchard Park, Tonawanda, and Dunkirk are a few of the local townships that are following this trend, yet the Queen City herself seems asleep on the matter.

For three years Jay McCarthy, local parks activist and school board member, and JP Gillespie, owner of Sunday Skate Shop, have been trying to wake her up. They claim to have had over a dozen meetings with the city so far, and one after the other, city officials have nodded their heads with approval while setting up the next hoop for the duo to jump through. Clearly, any city project has a host of frustrating, yet necessary, complications. Experimentation is not a luxury a city like Buffalo can afford, and regulations are necessary to make sure projects are done right. But the strengths of McCarthy’s and Gillespie’s position seem strong enough to cut through a bit of red tape.

For starters, the common fear that a sport as “dangerous” as skating would need exorbitant insurance is false. Insuring a skate park would cost the city as much as insuring traditional sport fields. Furthermore, maintenance of a skate park is cheaper than traditional sport parks—consistent lawn car is not needed—and if a skate park is made properly to begin with, it can handle the wear the tear of regular use for many years.

Another concern was the expense of the necessary facilities, such as lighting and toilets. But even that is taking care of itself. McCarthy and Gillespie have always wanted the park in LaSalle Park (McCarthy was the champion of the popular LaSalle dog park, after all), hoping to use it has a way to bring life to our underutilized waterfront. “Using this untapped resource, we can again prove to the public that we are a progressive city dedicated to creating a better quality of life for those who live here and visit,” says McCarthy.

Currently, the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works, Parks, and Recreation is trying to finalize a master plan to revitalize LaSalle Park. The first step of this plan is to renovate the LaSalle Park pool, including building new restrooms and lighting—which is convenient to McCarthy and Gillespie, since they have always hoped to build the skate park next to the pool. In the master plan, adjacent to the pool is a space designated for an “extreme sports park,” which is even hoped to be a revenue generator.

So what’s the problem? The project has public backing, City approval, and a brother-in-arms with the Parks Department. Why doesn’t it have any legs?

Within LaSalle Park is a water treatment plant. The Buffalo Water Authority could donate property to the project if Mayor Byron Brown asks it to, and McCarthy and Gillespie are waiting for Brown to ask. But the City feels that McCarthy and Gillespie don’t need the land yet, and that their next move is to raise the funds themselves and donate it to the city—then work can be started. “It’s one thing to raise $50,000 privately for a dog park,” says McCarthy, “but it’s another to raise $250,000 to $500,000.”

It’s a sizable sum, but it’s far from impossible. “Ideally,” says McCarthy, “a combination of public and private funds could come together to help fund and support the skatepark.” The park would be a non-profit, and therefore ripe for many big businesses, such as local banks, to donate money as tax writeoffs. Also, there are organizations that exist solely to fund the building of skateparks, such as the Tony Hawk Foundation. A donation from Nike wouldn’t be out of the question, either, since the Buffalo skate scene has recently produced some young stars who are likely to go pro. In fact, Nike and Adidas have already started to send pro skaters to check out Buffalo. Of course, once they got there, the only place to skate was the pre-described illegal venue.

All these options and more are there for the taking, except for one crucial detail: For corporate sponsors to show some love, a project needs to be legitimate. And if this theoretical skate park doesn’t even have a plot of land behind it, then investors aren’t likely to take out their checkbooks. The City won’t give the land until the project gains the funds, but the land is the only way to legitimize the project to investors. McCarthy and Gillespie might as well been told that once they dig the canal, they will be given the shovel.

“They are sitting on a $180 million rainy day fund, planning to give a private developer $5 million in public funds to help the Statler Hotel, and here we are trying to improve the quality of life for the youth of the city and they continue to turn their back on us,” says McCarthy.

And it’s a pity, not just for the skaters but for anyone hoping for a revitalized downtown. The fact that a widely accepted, clearly beneficial project can’t get the backing it needs to get started doesn’t bode well for progress in Buffalo. Tonawanda—granted, a smaller city with fewer problems—got a skate park built from concept to opening within a year, which is as long as McCarthy and Gillespie have been waiting for Mayor Brown to contact the Buffalo Water Authority.

geoffrey anstey

blog comments powered by Disqus