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Along the Highway

Along for the Ride
     By Stephanie Botner

In a cluttered room where the brown, wood-like paneling is reminiscent of 30 years past, Cliff Crawford leans back in a his chair to gaze out a window. Poster-sized maps line the walls. Stacks upon stacks of files and papers crowd tables and file cabinets. A collection of autographed and encased baseballs is set pyramid style at the edge of his desk. He is waiting to talk about a city proposal in works.

Not too far, on the same side of town, in a store where the black walls are reminiscent of an underground club, Mark Mitchell leans back on the floor to gaze up at the small TV showing a movie. His pet boxer, Braeden, lies beside him. Glass displays shine and merchandise is set in perfect order. Posters and stickers of cartoon figures and label names line the walls. He is waiting to discuss the same city proposal.

Different men with classic differing lifestyles, it would be hard to guess what topic could capture both. But when the proposal in mind has taken over 15 years to put in motion, people begin to think alike. And helping the city of Gainesville to create a place for the skateboarding community to call their own has done just that.

Cliff is a man in his later years sporting a perfect silver wave in his hair, glasses and a bold cranberry colored shirt. He has been director for the city's department of recreation and parks for five years, and "too many" more at other cities within Florida. Under his direction, a multitude of projects can be underway at any given time. Besides a tennis court, clubhouse, and a proposal propped up on a giant easel in the center of his office to operate the whole county's recreational services, one plan in motion has taken a front and center position on his priority list. It is a plan to build five practice facilities for skateboarding at various parks in Gainesville.

"The need has been around for a long time," he says as he pulls out an aged document. "This is the first recorded petition asking the city to recognize it. Look at the date: 1984. Can you believe that?"

Mark is man in twenties with black hair, bright eyes, and many tattoos covering his body. He has no hesitation when it comes to agreeing that it is about time the city did something to assist the skateboarding community. Owner of Eternal, the most extensive skateboard shop in Gainesville, he has hands-on experience with the pitfalls of skating in public.

"Citations, tickets, I've even had a warrant out for my arrest for trespassing if I was caught skating on the University's property again," He says in half disbelief. "It's been over a year, so I think I'm all right. Let's just say the UPD isn't very supportive of my hobby."

More than a hobby, skating is a way of life for people like Mark who has been skating for over 10 years. Unfortunately, these skaters must deal with escaping the law, skating in the dark of night when they are less exposed, or hanging out at private ramps that are usually in poor condition. That includes the young, adolescent boys, whose mothers drag with them to City Commissioner meetings begging for something to be done, so their child won't come home one more time with a slip of paper titled "Warning."

Every other try for a private skate facility has been shut down due to some ordinance technicality. There was the Sensation Basin on SR 441 back in the 70s, then nothing until three years ago when a private warehouse was rented behind the Brick City Music Hall by a group of the area's professional skaters and turned into a full running skate park, called Area 51. Even though admission was charged to it's rented facility, within a year some committee found some code not met and closed Area 51 down, Mark said.

"Today, there is a warehouse off of Depot Avenue that has been rented out by a private person so a ramp can be used by the locals," he says sheepishly, "but there are lots of cracks in the roof of the warehouse, so when it rains it causes lots of problems."

"There is a just bad image that goes with skateboarding," Mark tries to explain while rubbing his wrist where the words 'drug-free' have been tattooed. "We can be can be considered a subculture; one viewed that wrecks property and most likely does drugs because of the way we dress. They see it as a derelict lifestyle. It's a closed-minded perspective to me."

Cliff couldn't agree more.

"The skaters are sensitive to the reputation they've got. They are independent and free spirit athletes who should have as much opportunity to perform as a team player does."

As he leans back in his chair, places his hands behind his head and extends his legs up onto the next chair, Cliff says he can relate to the free spirit lifestyle of the skaters as he remembers his days as a surfer, running along the coasts of Florida searching for waves to perfect his own, creative style.

Cliff has enjoyed working to make the skating facilities work, but from his stand point, the main reason there is an all-of-the-sudden support from the city is truly political and financial. The reason for the long awaited change is due to one House and two Senate 1999 bills limiting the liability for skateboarding on the government's public property. Before those bills were passed, skateboarding was considered too dangerous a sport and would cost the state 10s of 1,000s of dollars in insurance costs.

"The interesting thing, is that there are much higher injury rates seen in the team sports that have been allowed on our fields and courts for years."

No matter the reason, the time had come to recognize the need for skateboard facilities, but like any big project that has waited years to be put into motion, there have been setbacks. The first came at a commissioners meeting when the original idea to build a large, full service skate park was questioned by the owners of Skate Station, who are underway with their endeavors of their own to build a facility. This was news in itself to the city, however, another idea that wouldn't compete had to be thought of. So a focus group of parents, businesses and local skaters, along with Cliff as a city representative was brought together and an idea was formed: build small sites with different themes essential to the practice and perfection of a skater's style.

The group then decided out of the 22 parks located within Gainesville's limits, which would host the new facilities. The criteria to be met was that the parks be close to mass transportation, especially the bus routes, and where other park type facilities were, such as picnic tables and trash receptacles. The five chosen are Lincoln/Williams park, Northeast Park, Tumblin Creek park, Lynch Park and Northside Park.

Then the next, and current, problem occurred. To build on a site, the group must first present the current site plans then show new site plans showcasing the anticipated improvements. Cliff and the group unfortunately realized that those, and most of Gainesville's parks were built in the 60s when cite plans were not required for construction. They must now wait until the current and proposed site plans can be drown before the proposal can be brought before the city's review. Also in process is the creation of a bid list for construction companies experienced in building skate parks. Overall, Cliff says he foresees the project being completed in the beginning of 2000.

Mark isn't so sure he could agree with that.

"With what I've learned about city productions, I wouldn't be surprised if it takes much longer than discussed. Everything must be done by the book and 'technicalities' always arise."

No matter how long it takes, both Mark and Cliff are along for the ride, and both express optimistic views about the finished product.

"I'm just trying to keep the skate community alive and productive, maybe even change the image so we are not viewed as a degenerate lifestyle," Mark says. "When these parks are completed, you're going to see a whole new range of skaters in Gainesville; anywhere from 10 to 40 year olds."

Cliff agrees when he smiles and says, "They deserve the chance."

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