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RPCV Stephanie Mohler designs and builds skateboard parks
RPCV Stephanie Mohler designs and builds skateboard parks
Concrete achievements: Florence business specializes in building skateboard parks for youth
By Rosemary Camozzi
For The Register-Guard
FLORENCE - A new casino is not the only tourist attraction debuting in Florence.
A world-class skateboard park under construction will draw a smaller but equally dedicated crowd from all over the globe to test its lines and curves.
The park is the project of a Florence company, Airspeed Skateparks LLC, that incorporated in 2000 with the dream of building a skate park in its hometown. Since then, Airspeed has built six parks around the United States and in Mexico, including in the Oregon coastal towns of Waldport and Reedsport.
"Each is better than the last. Florence is the culmination of the dream," says Geth Noble, co-owner of Airspeed.
Skateboarding may be wildly popular with youth, but it's not easy for Noble and other park-designing entrepreneurs to make a living at the business of building the parks. Individually crafted concrete parks are expensive to construct, and the funds for such public facilities are in short supply, making for a thin profit.
Still, the fascination the sport holds for Noble and others keeps them hooked.
"We could go after huge-budget projects and make a lot of money," Noble says. "But we have made a decision to focus on quality, not quantity and profit."
The $250,000 Florence park was financed through federal grants, donations from foundations, and community fund raising, said Juanita Kirkham, chairwoman of the fund-raising committee.
Kirkham expects it to help Florence's economy by increasing tourism and drawing more young families to a town in which 62 percent of residents are 57 or older, according to the 2000 census.
"We were inspired to do something for the youth, something progressive," says Kirkham, a mother of two. "Youth get the short end of the stick here."
Skateboarding has grown far beyond its roots. It is an $8.3 billion a year industry with 12.3 million participants, said John Bernards, executive director of the International Association of Skateboard Companies.
Heidi Lemmon, director of the Skatepark Association of the United States of America, a California-based organization that has helped about 1,000 parks get started and that offers its members insurance for skate events, estimates that three times as many kids are skateboarding than are participating in Little League. There is even talk of it becoming an Olympic sport.
And of all the places in the world to skate, Oregon may be the best.
The state's 96 skate parks (said to be the highest number per capita in the world) are full of extreme and unusual features, such as a skateable funnel in the Airspeed-designed Reedsport park that allows skaters to do a full upside-down loop (though few have attempted it).
"A lot of skaters take skate vacations and come to Oregon," says Stephanie Mohler, Airspeed's co-owner. The parks "are destination spots, like national parks."
Concrete or plastic?
Airspeed is one of three Northwest companies that have changed the look and construction of skateboard parks.
Airspeed, Dreamland Skateparks (based in Lincoln City) and Grindline (based in Seattle), all were started by longtime skaters who had previously worked together on a public skate park in Newberg.
All advocate that the same people who design the park will build it, and in the end, skate it, too. "Everyone on the crew has input. It's many minds working as one," Noble says.
Noble, 39, designs Airspeed's parks using a 3-D modeling program called Rhino. He has no formal design training, and credits his success to his 28 years of skating. Designs go through many changes.
"Once you're out working on the project, you get the full clarity," Mohler says. "You can change a shape, or change the positioning of a feature."
Like its Northwest competitors, Airspeed uses concrete and scorns the idea of prefabricated modular parks, which are usually made of steel or plastic. "Concrete is malleable, long-lasting, and you can build freeform structures and crazy shapes," Mohler says. "Prefab parks are quick fixes, a Band-Aid. They are linear - and they are boring."
Prefab parks also require a lot of maintenance, she says. "Eventually, you have to deal with abrupt edges, loose screws, and seams that pop up and catch your wheels."
Mohler, who has a degree in fine arts from Whitman College, sees the concrete parks as not just a place to have fun, but as "functional, large-scale sculptures." The company uses decorative concrete techniques, including color and stamped patterns, to meld function and beauty.
"We're trying to push the status quo as to what a skate park is," she says.
Her company is also working to change the perception that skate-park construction is a man's job. Airspeed has women on its construction crew. The company builds its parks with a crew of seven, including Noble, Mohler and another female skater.
"Generally, (in skating) there is a real traditional view of the world, that women belong in a certain place. We're disrupting all the traditional role playing."
She remembers being part of a volunteer building crew at the Newport park, before Airspeed was born, and hearing a male skater say, "Chicks are a bag," that is, a pain.
She was horrified.
"I got into skating because I thought the community held a lot of the values I had developed in Africa," says Mohler, 31, who spent two years in the Peace Corps after graduating from college. "Like not being part of the American working machine, and helping each other out. I was unaware that it applied to only one sex."
Her partner, Noble, is a surfer and skater who holds a biology degree from the University of California, San Diego. He grew up in Florence and Santa Cruz, but his parents are from Springfield, where his great-grandfather built concrete sidewalks.
Noble started building wood ramps while skating in Argentina, then learned about concrete while working on skate parks in southern Oregon.
Noble and Mohler spend much time helping municipalities raise money for park building. The pair spent more than two years helping each of the three coastal towns raise money.
The Northwest companies often bid on the same jobs, but they enjoy skating each other's parks, Noble says. It was the head of Dreamland Skateparks who first looped Airspeed's full pipe in Reedsport.
Dreamland, made up of about 10 skateboarder/builders, has completed 15 parks for municipalities and about an equal number of nonpublic parks, says Kent Dahlgren, a product designer at Xerox Corp. who holds the unpaid position as marketing manager for Dreamland.
The real competitors, Dahlgren says, are playground equipment manufacturers who build prefab modular parks, such as Landscape Structures Inc. in Delano, Minn.
"More than anything, we have to get these prefabs out of here," he says.
Lemmon, of the national skateparks association, says modular parks often sit empty after the initial interest wears off. "Cities are throwing their money away," she says. "They're better off buying picnic tables and garbage cans."
Modular parks are said to be cheaper, but no exact figures were available.
Landscape Structures declined to be interviewed by The Register-Guard. Another company, Missouri-based ARC, said their pre-fab parks range from $10,000 to $300,000, and average about $50,000. A medium-sized Airspeed park of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, costs about $250,000.
Five companies responded to the request for proposals on the Florence park. Only two, Airspeed and Dreamland, met the requirements, which included having built and designed five skate parks. Airspeed's plan, which proposed building up from ground level rather than digging down into a high water table, won. "Airspeed had the upper edge because they understood the project better," Florence's Kirkham says. "They understood the land."
Freedom, for a while
Noble and Mohler haven't built as many parks as their Northwest competitors, but that seems to be a matter of preference. With no children and few financial desires, they spend the winter as they choose.
"Quality of life is really important to us," Mohler says. "We don't need to build all the time. We can make a good income if we live cheap."
The couple lives in a former general store in Florence's Old Town district. The large main room serves as living room, office and makeshift kitchen as well as the surfboard- and skateboard-storage room. When they want to use the Internet, they go to the library. They generally camp on-site when they are building a park, which keeps the project secure and also saves money on hotel rooms.
On a Sunday afternoon, the pair can often be found with a vanload of Florence teenagers, heading to the Reedsport park.
"When we're not building, we're skating and surfing," Mohler says. "We're not making as much money, but we're having a damn good time."
Rosemary Camozzi is a business writer based in Eugene.
Airspeed Skateparks LLC
Owners: Geth Noble and Stephanie Mohler
Web site: www.airspeedskateparks.com
Financials: Not disclosed
Florence skate park
Cost: $250,000; funded by $125,000 federal grant, $37,500 Ford Family Foundation grant, $86,000 local cash and in-kind donations
Construction method: Concrete on a base of compacted sand inside 8-foot-tall retaining walls
Sand: 3,000 cubic yards used in construction
Drainage: Gravity system; no drains
Special features: The Cannon, a steel full pipe 20 feet long
Location: Miller Park, on 18th Street