A group of teenagers makes its way to the municipal skate park on a weekday afternoon as the sun sets on Ocean City.
The gate at the entrance to the newly refurbished $132,482 park is locked by a thick chain, but that’s not much of a deterrent as the teens squeeze through a small gap between the gate and perimeter fence with their skateboards. If that didn't work, they said would have just entered through one of the half-dozen holes cut in the perimeter fence by vandals.
All the skaterboarders had to do was walk into the recreation building next to the park and ask an employee to open the gate, but many skaters don't do that because they don't want to comply with the city's requirement that all skaters must wear protective gear.
"The park is never open and no one wants to wear all that stuff or have to deal with anyone in there," one of the 15-year-olds said. "It's easier to just sneak in."
Mike Dattilo, the city's director of community services, said the park is usually staffed during set operating hours to make sure all users obey the rules.
"But when it is not staffed, vandalism and noncompliance becomes an issue," he said.
While Dattilo said Ocean City is determined not to let the vandalism and misuse close the park, several other southern New Jersey municipalities have recently scrapped their skate parks — or discussed it — as a result of similar problems.
The parks have become a hard sell to to pennywise taxpayers.
"There's no justifying it to taxpayers," said John Kilmurray, the recreation director for Lacey Township, Ocean County, where a $200,000 skate park that is only three years old has already needed more than $10,000 in repairs. "We're getting to the point where something may have to be done."
Shattered Pipe Dreams
Dozens of area youngsters found that out when Mullica Township abruptly closed its skate park.
"I didn't find out until the day it happened," said Mike Ware, 18, of Mullica Township, Atlantic County, who also started skateboarding at the park and progressed into BMX riding there. "It's a shame, because it was a nice park and a lot of people used it."
Mullica Township invested more than $140,000 in taxpayer dollars in the park, but felt it made more fiscal sense to pay another $2,000 to dismantle the 5-year-old facility rather than to let the popular recreational facility stay open for another day. Workers dismantled the park two months ago.
"It was an attractive nuisance that was the source of a lot of abuse and misuse," Mayor Michael St. Amour said. "Obviously we were expecting to have to pay for some routine maintenance. But what we were getting was kids actually cutting the fences and damaging the picnic benches and garbage cans outside of the skate park, as well as damaging the Pine Cone Zone where young children play. We even have video of them going off the roofs of gazebos on bikes, when bikes weren't even allowed in the skate park."
According to the township's Chief Financial Officer Dawn Stollenwerk, the normal maintenance costs for the $102,000 facility should have been about $3,000 per year, but about $7,000 to $10,000 was actually spent each year largely due to vandalism.
Mullica Township is not alone:
- The $100,000 skate park at Amanda’s Field in Upper Township in Cape May County was closed until furthur notice last week, according to Recreation Supervisor Brenda Layton, after town officials grew frustrated with the failure of users to obey posted rules.
- In 2007, Stafford Township in Ocean County dismantled its state-of-the-art, $275,000 skate park after it was open for only eight years. It spent an extra $24,000 on security cameras, $40,000 to replace perimeter fencing, and $3,000 on a gate designed to keep bicycles out in an attempt to just keep the park open. But the gate was soon sawed off by vandals with power tools and the park closed a few months later.
- In Atlantic County, Hamilton Township closed its 4-year-old, $25,000 skate park in 2008, according to its recreation coordinator, Sue Giberson, who attributed the facility's closure to the township's inability to staff it full-time, separate skaters of different skill levels, or have acceptable "transition or buffer" between the attractions and the adjacent fence.
- Lower Township in Cape May County dismantled its $55,000 skate park three years ago after it was only open for about six years, citing lack of use, vandalism and misuse.
Other towns such as Barnegat Township, Ocean County, have temporarily closed their parks in order to deal with vandalism. The $53,000 skate park there was closed for three months in 2007 after three teenage boys tore down part of its chain-link fence with a tool they had stolen from a school bus a few days earlier.
"I think a small core of people take joy in vandalizing property and that very small number is ruining things for the vast majority," Township Administrator Dave Breeden said.
The skate park in the tiny Long Beach Island community of Barnegat Light may not make it through another round of costly maintenance, according to Councilwoman Dorothy Reynolds. The skate park cost $75,000 to build about 10 years ago, but it has already needed more than $40,000 in repairs.
And in Eagleswood Township, Ocean County, it has taken an increase in state police patrols and stricter rules to grant the skate park there a stay of execution.
"Right now things are going good,” Mayor James Pine said. “But if we have issues again we're certainly going to have to deal with them.”
Crossing the Line
The Eagleswood skate park is not the only one that has required special attention from the police.
In the last two years the Stafford Township skate park was in operation, police responded to more than 240 calls in the vicinity of the skate park, including calls involving reported misuse, trespassing, fighting, and drug-related arrests.
"The volume and severity of the call types in that area have decreased significantly since the skate park was dismantled," said Dellane.
In Ocean Township, police had to install a $30,000 pair of security cameras in 2007 to deter vandals at its then 2-year-old park by enabling police dispatchers to monitor what goes on at the skate park 24 hours a day.
And the Mullica Township Police Department was regularly called to its recreation complex for complaints of vandalism and criminal mischief, according to Det. Sgt. John Thompson, Jr.
Thompson said "only time will tell" how much of that vandalism was caused by the skate park's users, as was the popular belief prior to the park's closure.
But Stollenwerk said that since the skate park was removed there has been no other vandalism at the park.
Where It Works
Skate parks have not been a disaster for every town that has built them, however.
Brigantine became the second municipality in New Jersey to open a municipal skate park in 1996, according to Councilman Robert Solari, when it paid $25,000 to construct a skate park featuring a concrete bowl. And Solari said the city has experienced minimal vandalism in that time and even spent about $10,000 to expand its skate park in 2004.
"I don't know whether we're just lucky or if it's the location," Solari said of the skate park's proximity to the city's recreation building and the Police Benevolent Association building. "I always said that if it ever became a problem, we would close it — that was 16 years ago. And so far, so good."
Even though Ocean Township installed the expensive security cameras at its skate park, Clerk Diane Ambrosio said the park's location about 100 yards from the Police Department has been the biggest deterrent of vandalism and non-compliance.
"The police are constantly going in and out from calls and bringing people in. The kids see that," Ambrosio said. "That absolutely stops them from causing trouble."
Ed Guischard has been arrested for trespassing in the Ocean City skate park. The 18-year-old Ocean City resident has also received a ticket for skating in the street — which he had laminated.
"The skate park is always closed and you can't skate in the street," he said. "Where are we supposed to go?"
For some, it means traveling to skate at Spontaneous Sports — a portable skate park owned, and insured, by Scott Guntz. The 44-year-old owner of Bordz skate shop in Somers Point realized that kids skating for the right reasons were being chastised due to the actions of those who weren’t, so he decided to provide them with a safe place to skate, bringing it to a variety of community events.
“We want to show people the good side of skateboarding — and there is a very positive side to skateboarding,” Guntz said. “These are the kids who are getting punished from all the skate parks closing.”
But for many other skaters and bikers who frequented local skate parks, it has meant traveling to less-convenient or less-friendly neighborhoods.
“I’ve been riding in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. It‘s probably not the wisest idea, but all of the other places keep closing,” said Matt Gettings, 20, of Hamilton Township. “It’s a shame, because not everyone is into school sports and kids need something to do.”
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