DANA MERRYDAY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

City officials are planning a survey of users to find out which skatepark enhancements they would most like to see.

Skateboarding – like the Cottage Grove Skatepark itself – has had a bumpy ride.

 The birth of skateboarding curiously comes not from roller skating but from another sport, surfing. In the early 1960s bored surfers were looking for something else to do when the waves went flat, and started buying into “sidewalk surfing,” i.e. riding the pavement on a mini-surfboard with metal roller skate wheels attached.

Like real wave riders, the early skateboarders surfed their boards barefoot. Surf shops started offering commercially made skateboards and one of the earliest sponsored skaters, Patti McGee, toured the country promoting the new sport and was featured on the cover of Life magazine riding her board barefoot.

Practically from the beginning skateboarding had an aura of being dangerous and deviant behavior. The bad publicity and technical shortcomings of the equipment led the sport into a decline that didn’t pick up again until the 1970s, when Charles Nasworthy introduced polyurethane wheels. His Cadillac Wheels Company made the product that gave skateboarders a much smoother, faster ride with far more control. News of the wheels spread by word-of-mouth and led to a reawakening of the sport and growth of skateboard manufacturers, Skateboarder magazine, and lots of new enthusiasts.

Other innovations followed that further fueled the growth of the sport: kicktails on the skateboards, precision wheel bearings, and special skateboard trucks.

Another aspect born in the 1970s was the skatepark. These were commercial recreational businesses that attempted to capitalize on the boom in skateboarding and provide a legal, fun, place to associate and skate with other skateboarders. Pressure from the community and governments were making it hard on the street skaters, who were trying out tricks on curbs, drainage ditches, reservoirs and other public infrastructure, making the parks an attractive alternative to staying one jump ahead of the authorities. Liability costs and insurance soon put these parks out of business and the growth of public skateparks was the next phase of the sport’s development. 

Concerning the park in Cottage Grove, the first mention I could find in the files at the CG Historical Society was from a June 12, 1999 newspaper article. It was reported that Sarah Munsell and 10 skaters approached the City Council stating the case for creating a skatepark. The Cottage Grove Recreation Association (CGRA) also weighed in supporting the idea, stating that “skaters need a place to ride safely and hone their skills. Skateboarding is a real sport, inexpensive form of transportation, and kids need a place to go so they can stay out of trouble.”

Ideas like this seem simple enough, but the devil is in the details. It wasn’t until May 2003 that solid action seemed likely. The City of Cottage Grove donated the land where the skatepark now stands and also committed $20,000 for construction.

The park site is where the old Highway 99 used to run between the tracks and the modern highway runs. It was originally planned as the longest skatepark in Oregon. 

Despite the signs of progress, when the director of CGRA left the organization, the skatepark’s fate was in limbo. A group of civic leaders, working with the Ford Family Foundation, were looking for a project, and latched on to the skatepark, guiding it to completion.

That path was not without hiccups, but by 2004 phase one was complete and ready for skating.

The design of the park was well meaning but not necessarily done by a professional with a deep understanding of what works best when the wheels meet the surface. Over the years some of the features have proved to be a bit dangerous in how close they are to the fence.

Another problem has been the treatment of the facility and relations with the neighboring Dairy Queen. When things were new and shiny it was smooth sailing and there were plenty of volunteers to keep things tidy. A broom was provided to sweep the fir needles out of the bowls for safe skating. But as years went by graffiti tagging, trash and vandalism increased. While skaters protested it wasn’t them, the perception grew that the skatepark was a place where drugs and illegal activity happened, particularly in the row of trees and hedgerow between the park and the railroad tracks.

Things came to a head in the summer of 2011 after the third porta-potty was vandalized in the span of a year, the city officials ordered the skatepark closed.  

Skaters, feeling targeted, proclaimed their innocence and complained that the one place they had to hang out in a world filled with “No Skateboarding” signs was off-limits to them. Volunteers came forward offering to help, including parents of skaters, the South Valley Rotary Club, and skaters themselves. Curiously enough the CG Planning Commission had insisted that the trees on the east side of the park be preserved in 2002 when the park was in the planning phase. Now, along with the shrubbery, these same trees were viewed as a screen for illegal activity and were cut down as part of cleaning up the scene. Following the removal of the vegetation, cleaning and a commitment from volunteers to help maintain the park, it reopened to an energized group of skaters.

Times change and the ebb and flow of the hobby went along with it. At various points in time there were two businesses in town that catered to skateboarding. While there are still people who ride boards in the skatepark, mostly you see skateboards on the streets as transportation, particularly longboards. The rise in popularity of BMX bikes and razor-type scooters has brought a whole new scene to the skatepark.

City Councilor Greg Ervin grew up riding BMX bikes on homemade dirt jumps built on vacant lots. He said that dirt jumping was only one style of riding. There is street riding using urban features, parks (skatepark style), even daredevils using roofs and huge drops. After growing up around Drain in North Douglas County, Ervin went to UO, where he met his wife, a native Grover. 

Settling here and starting their family, Ervin wanted to share his love of BMXing with his sons. When he came to the skatepark he found less-than-ideal conditions. “Kids are making do with the park but there are some problems. The drains in the bowls often get plugged and fill with water, the broom is missing so I brought my blower to get the needles from the trees out of the park. I estimate it is now about 80% BMX bikes and scooters using the park, kids are pretty good about looking out and avoiding collisions. I started asking ‘What can we do to improve things’ – like bringing back a rail to ride. I guess the bigger question is should we just go for low-hanging fruit to fix things or aim for a really spectacular reworking of the park?”

Public Works director Faye Stewart, who was one of the members of the Ford Family Foundation group that nudged the skatepark into reality, spoke to the issues. “We can make sure we can get the bowls to drain. There are several people expressing interest in improving the park besides councilor Ervin. We are considering reworking the stairs to the park, which are not to code and possibly doing some grinding to make better surfaces for riders. Also we hope to have a summer intern do a survey of the users to find out their ideas for improvements.”  

Following up on that theme, this reporter headed over to the skatepark to see what the wheels on the ground had to say. The hot weather has made it not as popular as in the cooler times but I was fortunate to find a group of BMX and scooter riders who were willing to talk. “I come here about every other day if I’m not doing anything else. Scooters work pretty well here but it would be nice to have half pipes or spines to use,” one said. When asked about problems there was quick agreement. “The bowls fill up every time it rains, and the fence is really bad!” One showed me scars from a fence injury and others agreed it cost them a few shirts. When apprised about the possible survey for improving the park, they were intrigued but wondered what it would bring.

Let’s hope that the park can be made an attractive, safe, and fun place to practice, play and ride. There is too much history involved not to do our best. To give input contact Public Works at [email protected] or call 541-942-3349. 

Ride on Grove!

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