By Diana Cook
It wasn’t that many years ago that Joe Arnold — now a young adult — learned what it was like to want active opportunities for fun. He grew up in a time when riding skateboards and BMX bikes bolstered interest for outdoor recreation in a big way. It could be a challenge to find practice venues for such activities but, also true to teen form, he and his friends just rode wherever they could. They also started looking for a chance to bring a skate park to Fulton but like in any proposed construction project, there were hurdles to jump, and a process that required more than just hopes and dreams.
Now that Arnold is an adult, working as part of a drop-in program for youth in Fulton, while facing the challenge of keeping community youth engaged, he also found a revitalization of interest and support for that skate park idea.
Recognizing that there were just not a lot of places to go for structured safe activity near neighborhoods where they live, it was when kids started talking about what they’d love to be doing, and included the possibility of a skate park for bikes, skateboards and scooter recreation, that Arnold rediscovered and renewed a project he could get behind – hoping somehow to help make it happen. After all, he knew himself that, with some of the closest skate parks being dozens of miles away, getting there for the fun was hard.
“When you have to drive to get places, it can really limit the possibilities,” Arnold says.
After revisiting the idea through Fulton’s parks department, responsible for the care and maintenance of infrastructure around town, a connection was formed with the group that really takes on the burden of making recreation happen in Fulton — Friends of Fulton Parks, and Kelly Weaver, it’s current president.
Friends of Fulton Parks, a 501c3 non-profit organization, has one basic mission, says Weaver, when asked about their role in trying to move thing forward for the community. The mission is “to bring play back to the parks and to collaborate with community groups and city parks to make that happen,” she explains.
The fact is that their existence really fills an essential function for any project in the local parks. To explain, Barry Ostrander of the Parks and Recreation department in Fulton is very clear on both reality and appreciation. The fact is that when finances get tough, “the first thing that goes is recreation,” Ostrander says. The city has to focus priorities on water, fire, police, roads, basic grounds maintenance and other necessary infrastructure.
“It doesn’t leave much leftover for recreational investment and we just don’t have any funding available to sustain or develop park infrastructure,” he said.
That reality can make for an ongoing challenge, “especially since providing those recreational activities can be the most important part of a community,” said Ostrander. “It deals with quality of life.”
It’s for that reason that, whenever possible, the parks department partners with FOFP to support possible projects and work to support funding.
“Friends of Fulton Parks has done a lot for my department,” Ostrander says, “Securing money or getting people involved has been instrumental for areas that sorely lack.”
It was the FOFP connection that began the process of help for reinvigorating a focus on the skate park idea in the Van Buren Park, which was planned to be placed behind the tennis courts. It was a project that had begun a number of years prior and then stalled with economic downturn after the installation of a 100-foot cement slab – a foundation put down with intention of building a skate park so many years before.
“So we are now helping this group get through the process,” said Weaver, pointing out that all projects have to get approvals, seek funding and develop plans, along with meeting any other city or grant requirements before construction occurs.
They found out, “it was already zoned for a skate park,” said Weaver. “We got some of those same people involved from before and got permission to go forward.”
Citing that it was a space once used for Youth Soccer, Ostrander confirmed that the park had fallen by the wayside and it became no longer usable for field sports. When approached those multiple years ago, the skate park idea was on track with hopes to acquire skateboard equipment needed, but it never got that far.
“We’d been kicking the idea around for a while,” says Ostrander. So when this new group of youth and young adults came forward looking to jumpstart a journey towards completion, “we didn’t come across any resistance,” he said. “It has the blessing of the council”.
After running the renewed concept by the Recreation committee, Weaver and FOFP began to search to seek out appropriate grants and Weaver found some possible avenues for funding through the Tony Hawk Foundation. As with any grant, however, there are steps to be taken in preparation for application. Most basically, they “have to show interest and need … they must show that it is in fact a need,” Ostrander added.
Arnold has been keyed into that community interest for quite a while, and now sees even more interest and need from his vantage point with kids after school. He points out that there is a bike shop in Fulton, but little place for kids to ride bikes and scooters. And there are always kids on skateboards.
“It would definitely be a benefit to the businesses and other locations where kids spontaneously go. This would be a lot better. It would help them to not have kids skating around their places, and be safer for kids, too,” Arnold says. “A lot of people want to support it. Not just friends of the parks but tons of kids.”
To show the interest and need required to move things forward again, the loosely organized group of young people — with Arnold at the lead — are working on collecting as many signatures of support as possible on a petition.
“We are polling community support through a petition to apply for the grant,” Weaver said. “A proposal for the design is being worked on. Some people will be against it, but there are many people willing to support it and put out the effort to make it happen.”
She explained that, for some reason, “there is a bad perception of skateboards.” Because of that, Weaver says, “they may need to prove themselves a little, not only get out there and tell people about it and why they want it, but show that they are willing to work for it.”
With a youth group involved, it’s a real opportunity to engage their commitment in truly active ways. Weaver suggested they do an event to support the parks, and through the parks department they happened to have a vehicle for that as well. “Sparkle-a-Park” is something organized for Earth Month and encourages community residents, organizations for youth to get involved, to come out to the parks, pick up leaves, sticks, litter, and beautify the parks in preparation for the emerging summer season.
“It’s a perfect opportunity,” Weaver said, for the kids to “ help do the work that’s needed”.
It also provides a chance to make “Sparkle-a-Park” even more of an event in this case, drawing in support for the skate park and doing good work in the process. To further their cause, the skate park group got permission from the parks department to bring a couple of ramps out to the Van Buren Park site on the weekend of May 16 and May 17, for demonstration and to show how their ““Sparkle-a-Park” service enhances the experience and shows their true commitment to providing something for the community.
“Help for this initiative – cleaning up the parks – is a great benefit for my small crew,” Ostrander said, explaining “Sparkle-a-Park” focuses on a different Fulton park each week this time of year. With community, social service and other groups pitching in to rake leaves and get litter out of the way, he is thrilled that the parks department can focus on their schedule to start to maintain mowing and prepping the parks throughout.
In addition to helping out with Van Buren Park clean-up, as the group of youth and skate park supporters tried to come up with specific design plans. Their group was also encouraged to investigate possible skate park structure options. Some of them visited a skate park in Liverpool at Onondaga Lake park, and “they gained a benefit from the experience,” Weaver said. “It gets them to think about it … what do they like, what don’t they like, what would they do different?”
With several years of thought behind his interest, Arnold has pretty specific ideas – one being that the skate park “needs to have the capability to accommodate skateboards, scooters and bikes,” he said. He feels leaving one group out might lead to problems or controversy.
“And we really want it to be a solution for everyone’s interest,” he added.
He also pointed out that there are choices to be made. A concrete skate park “is more expensive, but it wouldn’t deteriorate so quick,” he explained. They could also focus on a design using a wooden structure.
“That’s easier to build and work on, but they definitely deteriorate quicker and the long term costs are higher,” Arnold said.
“Ultimately, we want it to be safe,” said Weaver. “We’re still at the beginning stages, but we want to achieve what was intended.”
From an overall perspective, Weaver finds herself just as delighted as those at the grass roots of the skate park concept.
“It’s a positive thing they are trying to do,” Weaver said, reinforcing the group’s ideals. “Joe Arnold is in it for the right reasons. It’s about the fact that the kids need something – he’s thinking, ‘I used to be a skater. I can help with this’ — and he’s there trying to get it going again,” she said.
Citing that about 99 percent of those who hear about it are behind it, Weaver wants to support those efforts, and be among those helping to provide one more recreational opportunity for Fulton.
“That’s what Friends of Fulton Parks is here to do … raising funds, putting in new things, and encouraging people to come to the parks,” said Weaver. “People like it once they are there, but they don’t always think of it, so they need things to do to encourage them to get out there and go. Our role is to open those doors for the opportunity to do things people like to do anyway. We do our best to build bridges.”
As for Arnold, he knows there is still work to be done, but is happy that things are moving along, mostly for the kids. Almost every day now, when he meets with kids after school, “they ask about it. They ask ‘are we going to have a place?’ It’s good to see them excited about something – and willing to do what they can to make it happen,” he said.