Skate or regulate?

Britton Middle School teacher George Karr grinds the ledge at

Some skaters say the city is missing out on more visitors by
charging a daily fee and staffing the public skate park it built
last year, but council members say there is no other option to
ensure the facility remains safe.
Some skaters say the city is missing out on more visitors by charging a daily fee and staffing the public skate park it built last year, but council members say there is no other option to ensure the facility remains safe.

The skate and BMX park, which cost about $600,000 to build, has been open for about 18 months, and for about the past year has been supervised by a recreation and community services department staff member.

The job is to collect the $1 daily use fee and make sure skaters and BMXers are wearing helmets, elbow and knee padding, and are following the rules posted at the park.

Since the park became supervised, a decision made by the council due to liability and safety concerns, skate park use has dropped significantly, but bad behavior that once plagued the park, including alcohol and drug consumption, foul language, violence and careless skating through the surrounding parking areas are “virtually nonexistent,” according to Morgan Hill recreation manager Chris Ghione.

“We believe staffing the park was the solution to creating a better environment at the park, and the $1 fee was just designed to help offset some of the cost,” Ghione said. “We have seen lower attendance since charging, but improved safety and security in the park and the immediate surrounding area.”

Skaters and BMX riders who have used the park since opening day have mixed feelings about the supervision.

“I don’t think we should pay, but I understand this is a new park, and that brings mandatory rules,” said skater Logan Hensley, 16, of Morgan Hill.

Christina Rodriguez of Morgan Hill, whose 7-year-old son Christian Sierra takes skating classes at the park Tuesday and Thursday, said “the park should be free for kids.”

More experienced skaters, including professionals who frequented the park last summer no longer go there because it’s now on a “kids’ schedule,” said Mario Guerrero, 27, of Gilroy.

Guerrero and other former Morgan Hill Skate Park users now skate at the public park in Gilroy, which is free and is not supervised.

“Everybody hates the Morgan Hill park due to the fact that we have to pay and wear helmets and pads. Nobody wants to,” said Guerrero, a full-time semi-pro skater who has skated locally for about 13 years – including at the former Morgan Hill skate park on Butterfield Boulevard.

Adult skaters enjoyed the park because they could ride during school hours without worrying about running into slower beginning skaters, Guerrero said. Plus, older skaters are aware of the risks involved with the sport, and should not have to be watched in order to ensure they are wearing protective gear.

“We had pros (from throughout the state) coming every other day” before the park was staffed, Guerrero said. “It’s sad what they did to the park, because none of these guys will ever come back.”

Some council members said they had no other choice when they implemented the staffing requirements in August 2009.

Shortly after the park opened in April 2009, non-skating patrons of the Centennial Recreation Center, which is adjacent to the facility, began to complain about errant skaters meandering through the parking lot which some noted was a safety hazard. Other complaints from the public had to do with drug and alcohol use among minors at the park.

Police responded to calls for service from the skate park and the CRC almost “daily” before staffing went into effect, Ghione said. But since August 2009, such calls have almost disappeared and police have responded to the area “less than five times” this year.

The single paid city employee who staffs the park also enforces the division in the park’s operating schedule, allowing only skaters or BMXers to use the park at specified times.

After one year, the $1 fee raised about $4,000 toward operating costs – not nearly enough to recover the $16,000 per year to fund the staff position and other costs related to supervision, Ghione said. Additional funds have been raised through concessions and retail sales, classes and safety equipment rentals at the park, bringing in a total of about $9,000 in revenue in one year.

Skate park use numbers from summer 2010 – the first summer the park was supervised – show a significant decline in attendance.

During June and July, average daily use at the park was about 23 patrons. Numbers from last summer were unavailable, but Ghione said the current statistics show that park use is not “nearly what it was prior to staffing the park.”

Councilman Larry Carr said the council had “no choice” but to begin staffing the skate park, in order to ensure the safety of senior citizens and others who use the areas surrounding the facility.

“We anticipated the numbers would go down, but for the safety of park users, and (other) people in that parking lot, we had no choice,” Carr said. “It’s not going as well as we hoped it would, but it was the right thing to do.”

Councilwoman Marby Lee agreed, though she “had a feeling” that staffing would eventually be necessary when the park initially opened.

“It’s important it remain staffed, until we find a way to deter people from some of the activities we had before.”

Perhaps the city could designate a few hours each day for unsupervised skating for grownups and advanced riders, Guerrero said.

Noting the openly “rebellious” nature of the street-skating culture, Guerrero suggested the city could leave it up to the park users. Local skaters at parks such as the Morgan Hill facility are known to enforce the rules themselves if rule-breakers threaten to jeopardize everyone’s ability to ride.

“If we tell them you can’t be drinking or smoking, they have to follow (the rules),” Guerrero said.

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