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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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‘Go Skate St. Pete’ offers glimpse of board-friendly downtown

The scene at a pop-up skate park along The Pier approach Saturday may illustrate why city leaders are thinking about lifting a ban on skateboards downtown.

In a sweltering parking lot next to Spa Beach, a legion of skaters aged anywhere from 15 to 50 cruised around an obstacle course of wooden ramps and metal rails; fathers who got into skating in the 1970s riding alongside their teenage sons.

Vendors from a crop of new skateboarding shops sold T-shirts and boards made locally by hand and decorated by city artists.

Local skateboarders are lobbying for a permanent waterfront skate park as part of the city’s plan to revamp The Pier, which proponents say could replicate the success of a popular skating facility along Bradenton’s downtown Riverwalk.

“If you look at St. Pete two years ago, this wasn’t really happening here. There weren’t a lot of local shops opening up. There weren’t a lot of people saying, ‘Hey, we want to skate,’ ” said Franklin Alves, a senior at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Alves and classmate Will Harris are among a diverse group of enthusiasts who have spoken at City Council meetings in recent months in favor of lifting the skating ban and building the park.

Both are avid riders of longboards, which are typically 60 inches or longer and a popular, inexpensive way for college students to get around campus, Alves said.

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Many of the organizers of Saturday’s Go Skate St. Pete event have been shredding the pavement in Pinellas County since well before Alves and Harris were born.

In St. Petersburg’s previous skating heyday, superstars like Tony Hawk would fly in from Los Angeles to Child’s Park for competitions held in back alleys, said Cleo Coney, 50.

“We didn’t have X-Games; we didn’t have ESPN; but it kept us busy after school,” he said.

Downtown restaurateur Jon La Budde, who participated in a race from The Pier to Albert Whitted Airport, remembers piecing together his first board by hand.

“We were taking the skates, you know, regular skates, and putting them on pieces of wood,” he said.

Saturday’s event, which coincided with the national Go Skateboarding Day, brought out a large cross-section of skaters, some on shortboards, others on longboards, children, teens, 30-somethings with toddlers and the “old school” crowd in their 50s, who encouraged youngsters to take advantage of the free helmets offered.

Woodworker Jon Stine opened Local Longboard Company a few months ago on Central Avenue with a specialty in the longer, more stable boards — “Cadillacs,” as he calls them — that appeal to those who may have less to prove on the ramp.

“I used to street skate and ramp half pipe and all that stuff when I was younger, but I haven’t done that in a number of years. I wanted to kind of get back into it and this was the next logical step,” Stine said.

Back in the 1990s, long-time skateboarders recall, the city began viewing their presence as a nuisance and menace to public property. A ban was put in place from the waterfront to 16th Street and from Fifth Avenue North to Five Avenue South.

Earlier this year city council members expressed support for lifting that ban, but no votes have been cast.

The council last month also endorsed the concept of a 40,000-square-foot skate park that could go in exactly where Saturday’s event was held along Spa Beach.

Those who prefer sliding down stair railings or flying off ramps could congregate at the skate park rather than pull such moves on downtown sidewalks.

A new public skate park also could become a regional attraction for skaters in downtown St. Petersburg, said Tim Simmons, who runs the indoor Schoolyard Skate Park north of downtown and recently opened a retail store at 1618 Central Avenue.

“We hope to see a new public park. That would be great for local skaters,” he said.

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