Maturing skateboarders slowly gaining more political success, influence in nation's cities

Friday, September 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ It's not just their parents' fight anymore, dude.

Skateboarding has matured to the point that many of its participants are now old enough to have their own children, and they are gaining a surprising degree of political clout.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Philadelphia, where a growing number of politicians, including both mayoral candidates, are considering whether to lift an unpopular ban on skateboarding at LOVE Park, a concrete plaza beloved by skaters from across the country.

Republican candidate Sam Katz even clumsily hopped on a board to show his support for the cause.

Skateboarders in Boulder, Colo., took concerns over poor facilities straight to police, who helped persuade the city to build an expanded park as a way to keep youths out of trouble. Skateboarders in Louisville, Ky., got that city to build and expand a state-of-the-art park.

``Five to 10 years ago, a city council wouldn't even recognize skateboarding as legitimate or want to build a facility,'' said Tony Hawk, the most famous name in skating.

The numbers show why that may be changing.

In the 1980s and '90s, when the sport was first growing in popularity, young skateboarders had to rely on their parents to press for skate parks and ordinances favorable to the sport. Many of those same skateboarders continue to ride as adults _ and they're not shy about boosting their sport.

``Until this point, skateboarders haven't really been that old,'' said Scott Kip, 28, president of the Philadelphia-based Skateboard Advocacy Network.

The National Sporting Goods Association estimates that nearly 10 million people over the age of 7 participated in skateboarding in 2002, making it more popular than tackle football and ice hockey.

Teri Olander, the athletics administrator for Boulder, said skateboarders showed politicians they are a group worth listening to. ``I know that they are aware that it's a population that has aged, or at least that is attracting those kind of 30-year-old teenagers,'' Olander said.

Skateboarders have been so successful in Long Beach, Calif., that city officials have five skate park projects on the table, including one slated to open next summer. Dennis Eschen, manager of planning and development for city parks, said meetings on skate parks started out with just 30 to 40 skateboarders showing up with their parents. But he said now there are frequently more than 120 skateboarders, and they speak for themselves.

Since skateboarders are promoting a positive activity for youths, it's hard for politicians to say no, said Dick Guthrie, director of human services for Claremont, Calif. The city's park was built in 1998, but skateboarders quickly filled it and are pushing for an expansion.

Skateboarders' newfound political muscle has helped them get expensive skate parks built at a time when local budgets face drastic cuts. Officials in Louisville, Ky., spent $2.5 million on the first phase of a skate park that opened last year. Because of demand, officials are spending another $400,000 on enhancements and renovations, said Michael Heitz, director of Louisville parks.

In Philadelphia, the biggest push is for a policy change at JFK Plaza, known as LOVE Park because it is home to the well-known Robert Indiana sculpture.

The park has been regarded as a skateboarding mecca for years because of its staircases, ledges and curves. But Mayor John Street banned the activity last year, saying the skateboarders caused significant damage to the granite and that the park looked better with its new grass, benches and plants.

This summer, however, skateboarders got a positive response when they went to the city with a proposal that would reopen the popular lunchtime spot to skateboarding, but only during certain hours.

Philadelphia City Councilman Frank Rizzo, who favors lifting the LOVE Park ban, says skateboarders already have his attention.

``I want as many friends as I can have, and if the skateboarders want to be friends with me, and someday vote for me, that's part of this business,'' Rizzo said.