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Cover Story

Wheels to nowhere

11/11/2015

If you had to name the one thing that sets Des Moines apart from any other city, what would that be? Des Moines is absolutely a great place to live, but what makes it a destination worth driving to, spending a few hundred dollars on a weekend in a hotel room and taking in our greatness? Every major city has its sports, arts, convention centers and entertainment districts, but if you’re from out of town and planning a weekend trip to a friendly Midwest city, what makes you choose Des Moines over our neighboring big brothers of Kansas City, Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago or St. Louis?

The truth is Des Moines is a minor league town. That’s not a slight on the quality of the people or businesses here, but a statement of fact on the population and entertainment options in the “greatest city in the universe.” Our local sports teams are second-tier (or in the case of professional football, third-tier). Our arena is much like those found in any metropolis in America. The culture and entertainment districts we champion are diminutive when compared to our neighbors. Worst of all, our most iconic attraction, the Iowa State Fair, lasts only two weeks and celebrates many things not Des Moines.

Now, to be fair, Des Moines has come a long way during the last 10 years. Wells Fargo Arena has made Des Moines a legitimate stop for major touring musicians and NCAA events, and the river walk has given the city a more visual identity with the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge, among other various unique installations. And our minor league sports teams and facilities are some of the best in the nation. But these are baby steps on the path to the majors. Hard work and incremental improvements might feel like the responsible way to city planning, but for Des Moines to make it to the big time, the city eventually needs to invest in something that no other city has. The problem is city officials had that chance three years ago when it approved the plans for Des Moines Regional Skate Park. But instead of fully embracing the project, it decided to let it fade into obscurity.

In June 2012, when the plans for the Des Moines Regional Skate Park were unveiled, it was presented as “a world-class skate park in Des Moines that is set to be the largest open park in the nation,” a 65,000-square-foot skateboarding paradise set between the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge and Interstate 235. Not only was it going to be massive in size and prominently placed in the heart of the city, the plans were designed to incorporate the “existing topography of the land and the water tables,” as well as respond to “the powerful currents of the river.” More than just a skate park that happened to be placed in Des Moines, it was a landmark fashioned to celebrate and elevate the city.

Fast-forward three years later, and instead of the river walk hosting hundreds of skaters, rollerbladers, scooters and BMX bikers, there is a large grassy knoll waiting patiently for the skate park it was promised.

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“I don’t think we were quite ready for what we just bit off, and we were missing the people to help us be ready,” said Kevin Jones, vice president of the Des Moines Regional Skate Park team and manager of Subsect Skateboard Shop in downtown Des Moines. “Ten years ago when we got involved, it was the city’s plan to build some smaller skate parks and then the regional skate park. We were on board to help the city build it right.”

Subsect Skateboard Shop has been a driving force in the central Iowa skating community for nearly 20 years. Along with other members of “extreme sports” community in central Iowa, Jones and Subsect began working with the City of Des Moines in 2004 to build a comprehensive skate park plan. Jones, who has been skateboarding for 28 years, says the old-school thinking was that skating in Iowa was a joke. However, since Subsect became a mainstay in Iowa skating, the narrative has changed.

“I think we’ve shined a light that Iowa isn’t just cornfields, and skaters can find a place here,” Jones said. “When outsiders come to town, you now hear, ‘This is not what I thought it would be.’ It’s like they’re surprised we’re not skating on gravel roads.”

Jones sees the Regional Park as the next step in Iowa’s skating progression.

“We’ve come a long way. We’ve built up a scene. Subsect’s kind of pushed that and invited people to join in,” said Jones. “I mean, a good chunk of business is from non-skaters or former skaters who like our stuff and the look. We love that. Imagine what could happen if the largest skate park in the nation was just up the road.”

After early meetings, Jones and the skate park team formed A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), an organized effort to design the regional skate park properly. Jones looks to existing parks in Iowa that were poorly received by skaters — such as Altoona and Knoxville — as the reasons why AMOS should take its time and build a perfect park.

“There’s some towns that have parks right around us that are cramped or have other problems, and it’s kind of the works of skateboarders not being involved in the design — people who don’t know parks are building them,” Jones said. “We’ve tried so hard to avoid that. We want to do it big and right, and that will make it a huge draw. It’ll be awesome for the kids who live here, but people will travel to skate it.”

While AMOS began hosting forums to get skater and community input on the park, the city was working on an even bigger 20-year plan to develop and grow the downtown area. Shaped over four incremental periods, improvements in the plan included transforming M.L. King Jr. Parkway as a major artery of the city, developing the edges of Gateway Park with supporting businesses and establishing an “Adventure Recreation Park” along the Des Moines river walk, and three smaller skate parks in Des Moines neighborhoods.

Early estimates set the skate park price tag at about $4 million, with the city providing $500,000 and the rest being raised between grants, donations and sponsorships. By early 2008, both the Des Moines City Council and AMOS signed off on the preliminary arrangement, construction started on a small skate park at Four Mile Community Center on Des Moines’ east side, and AMOS began designing the regional park. But that changed with the summer floods of 2008.

“I don’t fully know why the money wasn’t there for the skate park, but I’m pretty sure it was the floods,” Jones said. “The money was no longer there, so the city kind of held the designated land for us and told us we’d have to privately fundraise to keep it going. So we’re still going and trying to get something going for Des Moines.”

An artist’s rendition of what the Des Moines Regional Skate Park would look like, should it ever be completed.

An artist’s rendition of what the Des Moines Regional Skate Park would look like, should it ever be completed.

Following the floods, the city’s “Adventure Recreation Park” plans were reworked. Instead of three smaller parks, only Four Mile was to be constructed, albeit at half the size of its original plans of 65,000 square feet. And instead of receiving $500,000 from the City of Des Moines, AMOS would be responsible with fundraising the entire $3.5 million.

“I like the Four Mile park; it’s little and fit into the city’s neighborhoods park plan, but the floods changed everything, and that’s all we got,” says Jones. “I mean, quality-wise, it’s good, but right now, without the bigger one, that’s where everyone is trying to skate, so it makes it feel small.”

With the floods washing away the city money, AMOS pushed forward with a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines to hire professional skate park designers and have a rendering made. By 2012, the park rendering was publicly revealed to great fanfare in the skating community. For $3.5 million, the park would be larger than two acres, feature two skating pools reminiscent of the Des Moines river and backyard pools that made skateboarding famous in the 1970s. It would be inviting to all skill levels and be able to host multipurpose events such as concerts, competitions and demos.

Riding the high of the park plan’s publicity, AMOS set out to reach its multimillion-dollar fundraising goal. Jones was confident AMOS could raise the funds but said the group quickly learned it would take longer than initially anticipated.

“You know, I’ve never raised a dollar in my life, and there’s been a serious learning curve,” said Jones. “I think we kind of went into it with a really rad rendering of the park; we could show people what it would look like. In the back of our minds we thought, ‘Who wouldn’t give us money to build this thing?’ It’s just we learned real quick that there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Since the 2012 park plan’s debut, AMOS’ efforts have fallen out of the public eye, causing some in the skating community to grow skeptical the park will ever be constructed. Jones remains upbeat on the efforts to raise the funds.

“You hear some say it’s never gonna happen. But I always come back immediately with, ‘It’s gonna happen.’ I can’t say when, but we’re not at a point where it’s a lost cause,” said Jones. “We’ve got the right pieces of the puzzle now and a quiet momentum to where we’re hoping in the first part of January we will re-kickoff with kind of a whole new game plan and let everyone else know what we’ve been up to. It’s feeling good right now, and there’s a lot of positive energy.”

While Des Moines has spent the last decade planning and reworking its plans, a handful of Iowa communities have embraced skate parks as fixtures of their parks and recreation identities. First was Davenport, setting a state-wide benchmark for skate parks by funding and constructing its 32,000-square-foot Centennial riverfront skate park. Opened in 2006, Centennial was not just a gift to the skating community but part of an overall plan to attract people to the riverfront area.

Kevin Jones, manager of Subsect Skateboard Shop in downtown Des Moines, spearheaded the formation of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), a group working to make a local regional skate park a reality.

Kevin Jones, manager of Subsect Skateboard Shop in downtown Des Moines, spearheaded the formation of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS), a group working to make a local regional skate park a reality.

“It’s part of our whole revitalization of our riverfront, and it’s connected with lighting our soccer complex right next to it. We have multi-court basketball, a rugby field, a dog park, all planned to build up the area,” said Scott Hock, director of the Davenport Parks and Recreation department.

Hock, who wasn’t with the department when the skate park was constructed, doesn’t see the park as a luxury investment for a niche group but as a venue that serves a passionate community.

“We provide a lot of opportunities for tennis, softball, basketball, and baseball players, and all of these are activities that we want to help promote,” he said. “Skateboarding fits in there with our push to get people outside and exercising. Plus, it gets them in a place where we know it’s safe and designed for that activity, not places where they could get in trouble.”

Oskaloosa installed a skate park in 2012 after noticing a rise in the local interest in skating and a concern over where they were skating.

“Well, it was late 2009, and skaters were everywhere, all over town, and Oskaloosa was no different. We wanted to offer something to these kids to have this sport and like this sport, and city officials also got behind it,” says Sherry Vavra, director of the Mahaska Community Recreation Foundation. “It caters to a group of kids that sometimes slip through the cracks, but once this got built, they stopped skating on the furniture, and I think it’s been wonderful.”

Skaters have been considered a nuisance for decades, but Jones believes community parks fix that problem.

“I think the stigma is still there, but not nearly what it was when I was coming up. But as skating has grown more popular, it’s everywhere. If you watch an hour of television, you’re going to see skating, whether it’s in a commercial or show,” said Jones. “But really, no kid sets out to get kicked out of some place. We genuinely want a place where we can skate and hang out all day long.”

Oskaloosa’s skate park quickly became a focal point of the community, with the space being used for public events such as a dance, a concert and a local skater competition. Vavra says the park quickly gained a reputation for its quality design and has become a regional draw.

“We have a lot of visitors come to the park,” said Vavra. “Pretty much daily we have visitors from other places — Iowa City, Des Moines.”

Davenport’s Centennial Park followed a very similar trend to Oskaloosa’s and is considered by many skaters to be the best park in the state — possibly the Midwest.

“Public opinion is very strong for our park, and it draws a wide range of visitors, from young kids to adults and everyone in between,” says Hock. “The city really took its time to develop a park that skateboarders would enjoy and would want to spend time at.”

Centennial Park has become such a skating favorite that it has drawn national attention with the biggest names in skating holding events there.

“We had Tony Hawk and his Birdhouse team through last fall, in 2014,” Hock said.

While the event was important for those attending, Hock says it also shows what having a smartly designed park can do for the community.

“It was a well-attended event with people from town showing up, but it also had quite a few people come in from other areas. They drove up specifically to see Tony Hawk, enjoy the park and Davenport as a whole.”

Back in Des Moines, Jones says Subsect was enough to draw Tony Hawk to Des Moines, but he believes the city missed an opportunity for more.

“Tony skated in Davenport, but he stopped here first,” he said. “And I say his event should have been here had the regional park been open to host it.”

While Jones sees the Hawk tour holding its event in Davenport and not Des Moines as a missed opportunity, what he really wants Des Moines to take from Davenport is the sense of place its park provides Quad City skaters.

“I mean, we already bring pro skateboarders to the shop to skate and do signings, but with the regional skate park, we could take that to the next level,” he said. “It could be really positive for the community. The kids who hang around our shop are truly some of the raddest kids ever, and they’re just looking for some place to call home base. I keep saying as hard as it’s been, my whole goal has been to get this built and hear people say, ‘Why’d we wait so long?’ ”

As time has passed, other cities have built larger parks, meaning the Des Moines Regional Skate Park plans have fallen from the largest in the nation to being in the top 10. So even though Des Moines missed out on the opportunity to make a national splash by building the largest skate park in the nation, Jones believes that is no longer the point. Jones and AMOS didn’t set out to build the largest park, but rather to build something Des Moines and the skating community could be proud of.

Even though the park is years past its due date, Jones is confident it will happen — but it requires the Des Moines skaters to keep the faith.

“I always tell people we haven’t given up; we’re still working,” he said. “And if people ask what they can do to help, I just tell them to keep talking about it, and let the city know there is a demand.” CV

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