Skatin’ in the free world

Josh Dickerman, 11, concentrates on a trick during a group lesson at the Morgan Hill skate park Wednesday. The park is offering three four week skateboarding classes that are twice a week.

In an effort to bring more skaters and BMXers to the sparsely attended, often vacant Morgan Hill Skate Park, city staff have made the facility free for all users throughout the summer.

The park usually costs $1 for a day’s worth of use. Free admission started June 1, and will last through Sept. 3.

The facility will also offer group lessons for skaters and BMX riders, in three, four-week sessions, the last of which ends in October.

The idea of offering free admission came up earlier this year when council members expressed worry about the seeming lack of use of the park, which cost about $600,000 to build in 2010.

A staff report earlier this year noted that average daily attendance at the park was about 10, according to community services director Steve Rymer.

City staff think the low attendance is based on two main reasons cited by the skating and BMXing community – the daily entry fee and the requirement that all users wear helmets and padding. The latter is required by state law and the city cannot change the rule, Rymer said.

“We do have the ability to not charge, and to make it a free asset,” Rymer said. “We wanted to see if (free admission) will help increase use of the park.”

One Gilroy BMXer’s eyes lit up when told the Morgan Hill park will be free for the entire summer. Matt Senez, 16, was sitting outside the Gilroy Skate Park at Las Animas Veteran’s Park, resting with fellow riders Noah Thomas, 16, and Marcus Delgado, 16, Friday afternoon.

The trio of BMXers – all residents of Gilroy – say they prefer their hometown park to Morgan Hill’s, but they would use the neighboring city’s facilities more often if BMX riders had more access.

The Morgan Hill park keeps separate hours for skaters and BMX riders, out of liability concerns potentially emanating from collisions between the different modes of use, city staff have said.

“The hours are not good for bikes at Morgan Hill,” Thomas said.

Skaters and BMXers were up in arms when Morgan Hill city staff decided in 2010 – about a year after the park was constructed – to require all users at the park to wear helmets and protective pads on their elbows and knees.

Before those rules were implemented, large crowds gathered at the skate park. But some parents and young users of the park complained about the unregulated facility attracting users of profanity, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

No serious legal setbacks such as lawsuits or claims for damages have originated from the Morgan Hill park since it opened, according to city attorney Danny Wan. Police were called to the facility numerous times before it was supervised, in response to reports of underage use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.

The decision to supervise the park and require protective gear was a result of the council “trying to figure out the balance” among less, and more restrictive ways to cover the city’s liability requirements, Wan said.

Thomas and his friends said the rule wouldn’t bother them, but perhaps more people would use the park if the requirement was for helmets only, and not other padding.

Mario Guerrero, 29 of Gilroy, said he warned the council about requiring pads more than a year ago, as implementing such guidelines would guarantee reduced attendance.

He said since then, many who used to skate at the Morgan Hill skate park have chosen to skate at the Gilroy park instead. “Even little kids are getting tired of it,” Guerrero said.

By nature, skaters don’t follow rules very well, Guerrero explained.

“No skater wants to be monitored,” he said. “It’s what skateboarding was founded on. It’s an individual sport.”

Plus, “it’s hard to move with all those pads,” said Henry Barr, III, 19, who was also skating at the Gilroy park Friday.

But it’s also a “low-income” sport, he said, requiring only a board for effective participation, Guerrero added. Many skaters cannot afford the extra expense of arm and leg pads.

Guerrero has been to the Morgan Hill park since the entry fee was waived for the summer, and Guerrero has noticed a slight increase in attendance.

If so, it wasn’t on display Friday afternoon, when the Morgan Hill park was completely empty.

Matthew Akin, 18, was staffing the park’s entry trailer and equipment kiosk that welcomes users on their way in and – until June 1 – has collected their entry fees.

He has seen a definite rise in BMX use since June 1.

“Yesterday there were about 15 to 20 people here for a while. Usually there’s only about four or five,” he said.

Akin has skated and rode his BMX bike at the park since it opened two years ago. He also teaches free group BMX lessons at the park on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

He doesn’t mind having to wear protective pads. “You get used to them,” Akin said.

The skaters acknowledge that Morgan Hill’s Skate Park is notably better than Gilroy’s in terms of quality. Morgan Hill’s park was designed by the skaters who intended to use it, and it’s “more advanced, and it has better architecture” than the one in Gilroy which is full of cracks throughout the concrete structure. The Morgan Hill park contains a swimming-pool-style bowl as well as a “flow course” with rails, humps, ramps and jumps. The Gilroy park by comparison is decidedly more bare-bones.

“The Morgan Hill park is perfectly smooth. You won’t get any broken ankles there,” Barr said.

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