The following article, which first appeared in The Pilot on July 2, 2019, won a second place award for Sports Feature Reporting from the North Carolina Press Association.
Jack Kelley wants a place where he and his friends can skate without breaking the law or running afoul of local business owners.
Town ordinances prevent the 13-year-old from legally riding his skateboard in the most skateable part of Southern Pines. If he’s caught skating on any sidewalk or roadway in the town’s business district, Jack could be charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a $50 fine.
His plight is familiar to a generation of skateboarders in Moore County, where the soon-to-be Olympic sport has been without a proper venue for the past decade.
A sixth-grade student at Southern Middle School, Jack said the closest public skate park is a 38-minute drive from his home. He was 2 years old when the county’s only purpose-built place for skaters was shuttered during the lowest valley of the Great Recession.
Jack is asking residents to sign a petition to build a skate park in downtown Southern Pines. Armed with a storage clipboard filled with pens and petition forms, he spent a recent Sunday afternoon pitching the idea to strangers on Southwest Broad Street.
His pitch began with a brief speech summarizing the benefits of a public skate park. He then offered to produce a laminated copy of the letter he intends to submit to the town council, lest anyone doubt his commitment to the project.
An older woman gushed about the young petitioner’s moxie before writing her name on the form. Jack thanked her twice. He thanks everyone, even if they decline to sign the petition.
Jack said he’s been rejected by only a handful of people. None of them gave him a reason.
“They just kind of brushed me off,” he said.
Filling a Void
Several downtown business owners have signed Jack’s petition, which boasted nearly 450 total signatures as of Monday afternoon. Baxter Clement, owner of Casino Guitars on Northeast Broad Street, even offered to donate money to help pay for the skate park’s construction.
“I think it’s a great idea because it’s really boring here for kids,” Clement said. “There are a lot of kids in this community who don’t play golf or tennis and don’t ride horses.”
Much of the recent growth in southern Moore County has been attributed to an influx of young military families. While the area is home to multiple tennis courts, golf courses and equestrian tracks, these amenities appeal more to older adults than to families with school-age children.
Youth participation rates for golf and tennis are far lower than for other sports, according to survey data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. A 2018 study by Street and Smith Sports Business Journal found that golf, tennis and horse racing have the oldest average viewerships of all major televised sports.
“We definitely see a lot of parents expressing the need for a skate park,” said William Dean, owner of Flowland Counter Culture Outlet in Aberdeen. “Some of the military families who moved here from places with lots of skate parks are truly surprised when they find out that Moore County doesn’t have one.”
Dean said skateboard sales at Flowland have increased “five-fold” over the past two years. He expects the trend to continue after skateboarding makes it Olympic debut at the 2020 games.
“Because of the Olympics and all the press it’s going to get, there’s going to be a groundswell of participation,” Dean said. “Our skate population is only going to grow.”
Dean previously served as president of Flowmoore, a Pinebluff skate park that opened in 2006. The facility was popular with local skaters, but the harsh economy at the time forced the park to close after only three years in business.
Though it was short-lived, Dean believes Flowmoore made a difference during its brief existence. He said the park’s teenage patrons were less likely to trespass or violate ordinances when they had a place to skate.
“A lot of those youths could have gone in bad directions,” Dean said. “But because they had that park, I am 100-percent convinced that some of them did well and moved on to better things.”
Jack’s petition represents the first serious effort to build a skate park in the Sandhills since Flowmoore closed. In Dean’s estimation, the need for such a place has only grown.
“We have a lot more families now than we did 10 years ago,” he said.
Hurdles to Clear
Terry Grimble is widely recognized in skateboarding communities across eastern North Carolina. He serves as president of DaVille Skate Shop, a business with locations in Fayetteville and Myrtle Beach, and is the founder of the Friends of the Skateparks Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for skateboarding projects.
And he was once, like Jack, a teenage skater at the mercy of municipal leaders. When Grimble was 18 years old, he tried to persuade city officials in Fayetteville to build a downtown skate park.
With support from the Parks and Recreation department, Grimble presented his proposal to the city council in 1991. It didn’t go the way he hoped.
“We lost by one vote,” he said.
Grimble continued to advocate for a skateboarding facility in downtown Fayetteville. His persistence eventually led to the opening of a skate park, albeit in a different location, in 1993.
Still, Grimble said the project could have been completed “two years earlier for 20 percent of the cost” had it been approved when he first addressed the council.
Funding could be another hurdle. Grimble said a modestly sized skate park can cost as much as $450,000 or as little as $300,000, depending on the builder.
But the investment, he said, can pay off in multiple ways.
“It’s been proven that skate parks reduce crime and depending on the scope of the park, it could also create a positive economic impact,” Grimble said. “More people are going to come in from out of town, spending money on gas and eating at local restaurants.”
He added: “And if they build the proper park, there’s no reason Southern Pines couldn’t produce an Olympic athlete by 2024.”
The Friends of the Skateparks Foundation provided input on a $1 million skate park expected to open this fall in Fayetteville. Funded through a bond referendum approved by voters in 2016, the park will be built at the same downtown location suggested by Grimble in the early 1990s.
“It can take years and years of planning and funds to do a skate park,” he said. “But it’s the world’s fastest growing sport and it’s going to be around forever.”
It remains to be seen if council members in Southern Pines will be amenable to Jack’s proposal. Reagan Parsons, who has served as town manager for the past 15 years, said he doesn’t recall a formal petition for a skate park ever being presented to the council. No local studies have been done to determine the feasibility of such a project, he said.
Many public skate parks require visitors to wear helmets and safety pads. According to Parsons, these requirements can sometimes be a dealbreaker for skaters.
“One of the real challenges that a lot places experience is if a public entity owns (a skate park) and insurers get involved, you’ve got to start requiring certain safety measures and different things,” Parsons said. “Then people tend not to want to use it.”
A Teen Determined
Jack fell in love with skateboarding after an uncle introduced him to the sport two years ago. Before long, he was entertaining his little brother with tricks he learned from studying skate videos on YouTube.
Some of Jack’s friends picked up skateboards around the same time. After mastering the fundamentals in driveways and cul-de-sacs, the teenagers began searching for a real place to skate.
In downtown Southern Pines, they found a landscape teeming with rideable terrain. They also found disapproving business owners and signs forbidding skateboards.
From Jack’s perspective, a downtown skate park seemed like the obvious solution. He wrote a plea to town officials and designed the petition forms with help from his social studies teacher.
“I really didn’t have a good speech when I started,” Jack said. “I was nervous, but I was still getting signatures because people agreed with it.”
Nervousness is not something Jack exudes naturally. He is inquisitive and charismatic, especially when describing the elements of a successful skate park or the nuances of a particular trick.
Jack is also indefatigable, according to his mother Catrina Kelley. When her son sets out to accomplish something, she said, “he sticks with it.”
Kelley said Jack’s crusade for a skatepark has been met so far with near-unanimous support. She cited the multiple downtown business owners backing the proposal as evidence of its appeal.
“The businesses, and I agree with this 100 percent, have a huge problem when [the skaters] are grinding on their handrails and benches,” she said. “But if you give them somewhere else where they can skate, then that won’t be a problem, and I think that’s why a lot of the businesses are behind it.”
She’s behind it, too. Like most parents, Kelley said she approves of just about any recreational activity that doesn’t involve “being inside all the time playing video games.”
Jack envisions the skate park going in an empty field near the old tennis court on East Connecticut Avenue. He and his friends like to skate on the court, where a large sign forbids the use of alcohol, cigarettes and skateboards.