On July 11, 26-year-old Thomas Barker lead a group of Encinitas skaters to a City Council meeting that changed the small community’s history when it comes to skateboarding. Barker, who has been part of a movement for nearly a decade to build a public skatepark in the small coastal town, really put his efforts into overdrive back in 2009, creating a Facebook page in honor of the project, “Encinitas Needs A Real Skatepark,” which has nearly 2,500 likes.
The amount of support he received was overwhelming, and soon skateboarders of all ages were showing up regularly at local City Hall meetings to back the cause--something that Barker, and the city for that matter, hadn’t expected.
The final decision on the 13,000-square-foot skatepark, which is part of a larger project located on the west side of I-5 between Santa Fe Drive and Birmingham Drive, came at a City Council meeting in July, at which Barker rallied nearly two dozen skateboarders and gave a speech encouraging council members and community to vote in favor of the park. Now, months later, the project has broken ground and city planners predict construction to be finished by the end of 2013.
We caught up with Barker to learn more about the process, how he brought the city council and skaters together to support the project, and what the skateboarding community can learn from his story.
What set you off to start pursuing the construction of a skate park through the city? What helped you stick with it through all these years and keep pushing for the park?
I basically fell into the roll, which Jeff King (of Built To Shred stardom) had occupied for many years. When he [King] made the move to LA a few years back, it left the Encinitas skate community a little rudderless. I'm not sure what inspired me, but I started a Facebook page, “Encinitas Needs a real Skatepark,“ to get a park built in 2009, I read somewhere that after years of litigation things were starting to pick back up again with regards to the Hall Property project in Encinitas and that they were still planning on including a skate park in those plans. I thought it was an opportunity that Encinitas skateboarders and myself shouldn’t overlook.
The Facebook page took off, I think I had 1,000 people following the page in the first year. The second thing that got the ball rolling was I wrote a polite email to the Parks and Recreation Director informing him of the interest the local community had shown on Facebook and asking if there was anything I could do to support the project. I ended up meeting with him and that was my start.
I have to say this whole time it has seemed like we were either just a year away from construction or the park was about to go up in smoke. It has been four years now but we've finally broken ground. I'm not spiking the football yet, since this is a huge community park project and it’s taken over a decade for the city to get here. I'm not exhaling until I do my first pivot-fakie in the park, that's when I'll know it’s real.
What has kept me going over the years though is a print out of the park next to my bed; I've spent so much time staring at it, thinking about lines in the park. Marc Johnson once said, "If you can think of it, you can do it. Skateboarding is ideas put into action.” I'm just trying to use that thought process to help skateboarding.
If you had to take three key lessons and dispense them to the skate industry about what you’ve learned and how others can apply it in their community, or even to their company/retail shop, what would they be?
A few months ago I saw a quote from Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense that has stuck with me, "...organizations make decisions driven by one of two things, leadership or crisis." We can either be the leaders of our community or wait till there is a crisis--the day local skateboarders wake up and realize there isn't a thing to skateboard around, the spots are knobbed, and there is no local skate park. Don't sit back and think someone else is going to put in the work it takes to get a skate park built, take it into your own hands. If the town you live in or the town your business is in doesn't have a public skate park, be the leader your town needs. Every town deserves a skate park or at least a place all people can skateboard hassle free. Remember MJ, "ideas into action." We all have great ideas on how to incorporate skateboarding into our communities and we just need to get out there and put those into action. Don't be scared. Even in a town like Encinitas with one of the strongest skate communities in the world, it wasn't a pro or shop or business owner who got Encinitas our first real public park, it was us- the skateboarders that grew up here.
Second, people don't understand social media yet, especially older folks in the community. I was skeptical but I have seen the power of social media. By posting regularly on the Facebook page, the community saw us as active and that we were not going away. I used the page the most to highlight skateboarders in the community and found people responded to those posts much more than a post about the current state of the construction contracts, but I would always tie in something about the project to subtly remind people it was still alive.
The Facebook page was maybe even more effective with the outside community rather then the skateboard community, text messaging friends and personal chats still made a big difference in getting skateboarders to show up at the meetings. The key to online media is offline relationships.
Third, just like Andrew Reynolds and Eric Koston showed my generation what is possible on a skateboard, we need to show the next generation what is possible off a skateboard. I was so lucky to have known Jeff King when I was a kid to see how much he cared for the local skaters and the trouble he went through to try and get us a public place to skateboard. If your not familiar with his story he was responsible for Flatbar Friday's at Moonlight Beach parking lot, where he would bring out tons of rails and ramps and for years it was the heart beat of North County skateboarding. He not only built the rails, he gave some local skateboarders their first jobs helping him with his business, he gave out dozens of flat bars so kids could skate during the week, and he was the driving force in making sure skateboarding was in the city of Encinitas's future plans after they kicked us out of the parking lot. He moved away but he planted a seed and it took over a decade but that seed has sprouted. Thanks Jeff. So remember even if you may fail this time around, your planting a seed that the next generation may see grow into the skate parks of their dreams.
What are the steps that people in other communities can take if they are looking to create a city built and funded skate park? What specific suggestions do you have about working with city council members, etc.
Memorize the Tony Hawk Foundation’s, "Public Skate Park Development Guide," and if you want to take that a step further look up all the footnotes in it and expand on their research. There are great facts that illustrate counter points to many of the myths people have about skateboarding and those are really helpful when dealing with cities and the public.
Other then that, my advice would be to know that a small group of motivated individuals can have a huge impact on a local community. Showing up to meetings and staying informed is 95% of the battle. When skateboarders show up to a city council meeting, believe me, everyone takes notice. Young people don't show up to these very often, so when they do they stick out (which is a good thing).
Also don't underestimate the benefits of being on a first name basis with your local city council members and members of city staff. People don't realize that most community projects have a very long life span before they are actually built. Staying informed about what is coming down the pipeline in your town can get you out in front of projects and have skateboarding included from the beginning. Also these are great relationships to have if and when there is a conflict with local skateboarders and the city.
Along those same lines, always be informed, you know, keep your ears to the streets. I read every local newspaper and blog--these are valuable insights into your community and how your community is feeling about the project and the local economic environment. I also talked to a lot of community members, not just skateboarders, but people who are involved in local affairs. I found a lot of my time talking to skateboarders was spent mostly dispelling rumors and bad information people had heard about the park and telling them the project wasn't dead.
While your local newspapers and blog may be good for judging local mood and support, reading all the public information available on your city government is critical to working with a city. A CFO or CPA I am not, being able to read financials, city staff reports, and getting the gist of what is going on is helpful when you're in meeting or dealing with a city or government. Does your city have a budget surplus? Did your city just file bankruptcy? Is it in the middle of litigation that is about to cost it a lot of money? Does the city have a parks and recreation development fund? All these could be good indicators as to whether the city has the capacity to fund a park or on the other end if the city may be looking to sell some property on the cheap that you could fundraise to build a park on. Many cities and states are hurting financially right now, so knowing the financials is as important as ever. All these are excellent things to know, from bond financing, employee pensions, the fiscal cliff, I found myself in conversations I never dreamed that I would be in before and staying informed helped me guide my way forward.
Finally, be respectful and polite. Kill them with kindness as the old saying goes; people are not expecting it from skateboarders. No matter what the history of skateboarding is in your town go in with a fresh outlook and no grudges, those will only hold skateboarders back and divide you from your city. I also found it helpful that I always kind of dressed nice when I dealt with the City, I liked to show them that respect, I mean I didn't wear a suit, just a collared shirt every time so at least one skateboarder was presentable.
From your standpoint, what do you think are the key steps or barriers that need to come down in order to bridge the communication gap that seems to exist between cities and the skateboard industry and community?
I have to say the line in my speech [to City Council] that received the most positive feedback was, "I ask you if we created a professional baseball player every few years, if we had dozens of locals going to work in the baseball industry, if we had four retail establishments devoted just to baseball, if we created the first baseball P.E. class in the world, would we have only one baseball diamond?" It was a mixture of a history and economics lesson and also made people think about the situation in a different light, what if these kids weren't skateboarders.
I like to use sports analogies to describe skateboarding, not because I think skateboarding is just like football or baseball, but because that is a language I share in common with others and that people understand. It's up to us to educate people about what exactly skateboarding is or isn't, how it helps kids, and why a skate park is a positive investment for the community to make.
It comes down to education and time, from educating the public about skateboarding to educating skateboarding about the public process. It will take time but we will learn the best way forward is to work together.