County panel agrees to spend $2 million on skate park

Erich Hellstrom (left) and Stephen Pond share a skateboard Friday afternoon on their way home from class at the College of Charleston. Pond said he was given a ticket for skateboarding downtown, but got it reduced to probation when he went to court.

This could be truly epic.

The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission has agreed to spend $2 million to build a skate park -- one of the largest on the East Coast-- in downtown Charleston.

Two. Million. Dollars.

"It will be quite a large park," said Shannon Smith, a local mom, teacher and avid skateboarder affiliated with the skate park advocacy group Pour It Now. "We're shooting for 40,000 square feet."

At that size, the skateboard park would dwarf the new Owens Field Skate Park in Columbia and would be the same size as the Louisville Extreme Park in Kentucky.

Plans call for creating the park on land along Morrison Drive just north of Huger Street, in the state-owned right of way below the Ravenel Bridge. The city of Charleston and Pour It Now are working with the county PRC on the plan.

The park plan was hailed by local skateboard enthusiasts, including 20-year-old Stephen Pond, who served a 90-day probationary sentence for skateboarding on a city street last year.

"We've been ready for a park for a long time," said Pond, a College of Charleston freshman from Winston-Salem, N.C.

Pond said he and other skaters would use the park, but, he said, he's not ready to give up skateboarding on city streets, which is illegal. He said he's been skateboarding since he was about 11 and that his board gets him to classes and takes him on recreational outings.

After Charleston police ticketed him for skateboarding on St. Philip Street, Pond said he went to Charleston Municipal Court and was sentenced to probation.

"I stopped for 90 days, but I'm back," he declared. "I use my board every day."

The PRC's decision Monday to fund the park follows about three years of on-and-off discussions between Charleston city officials and Pour It Now.

"We realized it would be an uphill battle to get the money that we needed, so we approached the PRC," said Matt Compton, director of the city's Parks Department. "Everything the county PRC does is first class, they don't have a facility downtown, and this would allow them to fill a niche."

The county has three water parks, several beach parks, boat landings, fishing piers, and even a bring-your-own-horse equestrian center, but no skate parks.

"For us, it's not just a skate park," said PRC Executive Director Tom O'Rourke. "We will try to include as many things there as possible; maybe some climbing features, or some fitness programs that take the Ravenel Bridge into consideration."

Pour It Now members often have said that if a city doesn't have a skate park, then the whole city is a skate park, a theory that was tested in a highly publicized 2006 video showing a skateboarder being shoved into a bush by a city police officer while skating atop a bench at Waterfront Park.

The city, which has a modest skateboard park in West Ashley, was interested in building a substantial skateboard park but didn't have the funding for a large one.

"We wouldn't have been happy with it, and we would have had to operate it," Compton said. "The park they are contemplating would be one of the largest in the Southeast, so it's sure to be an instant success."

Like most Charleston County parks, it would not be free, and as with Mount Pleasant's tiny skateboard park, skaters would be required to wear safety gear.

"We're government, so it's going to be really safe, and it's going to cost money," O'Rourke said.

How much money, he couldn't say, but the hope is to keep admission fees reasonable and make money from hosting tournaments and selling concessions.

"That budget (approved by the PRC commission) starts in July 2010, so it's not time to run out and buy the skateboards yet," O'Rourke said.

Edward C. Fennell contributed to this report.