Splash: Princeton skatepark project wants kids to be seen and heard

Matthew Orto skates a quarter pipe at a skatepark in Rockford, Ill. Matthew is trying to bring a skatepark to Princeton. submitted photo

by: Maic D’Agostino

Skateboarders should be seen AND heard.

That’s why Princeton residents Katie and Daniel Orto and their skateboarding son, Matthew, have been working since last summer to bring something to their city they feel is sorely lacking.

A skatepark.

“We have to drive anywhere 45 minutes to an hour, take our business elsewhere, spend our money and our days downtown in other communities … while our kids skate and have a good time,” Katie said.

Right now, Matthew and his friends are congregating to do their flips and ollies in spaces that Katie feels are not safe enough or cause too much noise.

Such as the Ortos’ driveway.

“They usually come and skate in front of my house,” she said. “… They go downtown; they’re not allowed to go downtown … They skate along Highway 23 as well.”

Sometimes locals complain about the skaters, Katie explained, which she thinks is unfortunate.

Part of the problem is that sidewalks and roads aren’t smooth enough for safe — and quiet — skateboarding.

“Of course, riding on a street or a sidewalk is going to be noisy,” Katie said. “It’s not made for skateboards.”

The Ortos originate from Rockford, Ill., where there are not one, not two, not three, but four public skateparks.

“It’s high involvement from where we’re from,” Katie said. “Parks and recreation is really big in Rockford, Ill.”

On the way back from Illinois last summer, the family stopped at a skatepark, knowing there wasn’t one near home.

Matthew turned to his mom and asked, “What do we do to get a skatepark in our town? I’m tired of having to drive.”

Matthew is what Katie calls “well-rounded,” as he loves skateboarding, dirt-biking, four-wheeling and other outdoor activities.

Much of that open-air fun Matthew enjoys is readily available in Princeton.

“There’s nothing this kid doesn’t like. You’ve got all the fishing and dirtbike riding you can do here,” Katie said.

But streets and sidewalks just aren’t safe enough for skateboarding, she added, noting that even pebbles can be dangerous.

So the Ortos decided to do something about it. They formed a group — the Princeton Community Skatepark Project — and started collecting signatures.

Katies estimates the band of skateboarders is now 20 kids strong.

And they’ve made their young voices heard.

The group is prepared to do all the work necessary to give Princeton what essentially amounts to a free park: Finding a location, fund-raising, hiring a designer and contracting builders.

But first the skaters needed the approval of the Princeton City Council of a space where they can build their park.

“It’s very limited here in Princeton; it’s a very, very small town,” Katie said.

She was impressed with how they kids handled themselves as they pled their case before the council, as she called them “very respectful and polite.”

The group thought it had a city-owned spot picked out downtown.

“It fit the perfect standards that we were looking for,” Katie said. “Open, safe place for kids to go … close to the police station, the library; everybody can keep an eye on them as a community.”

But the council turned down the proposal 2-4 May 23, possibly because several neighbors worried the park would make too much noise.

One council member explained he voted against the proposal because he would like to see the skatepark placed in Princeton’s City Park.

While the project was hoping it had found its location, Katie sees the voting down by the council as a good thing.

“Obviously, the kids would love to be somewhere where they’re wanted,” she said. “… They want to feel needed, wanted. They don’t want to feel pushed away.”

In any case, now the Ortos and their friends have to find a slice of land that meets all the criteria:
Approval of the council;
Land that either the city gives them or some generous soul donates to the project;
And, most importantly, a visible spot not tucked out of the way.

Katie knows how important that last point is.

“You don’t want them to be in an area where they can’t be seen or heard or kept an eye on,” she said. “So it’s really limited here in our small town to expand.”

And she’s heard that theme in many places.

Through the project’s Facebook page, skateboarders from Ripon told Katie not to make the mistake they believe was made with Ripon’s skatepark: Don’t hide the skaters.

“They’re going to be here, regardless,” Katie said. “You might as well let them be accepted and show that they’re needed, not like outcasts.”

The Princeton Community Skatepark Project is trying to be very intentional about where they build and how they build their park.

Luckily, they’ve had help from others, such as Portage Family Skate Park president Kyle Little and the Tony Hawk Foundation, established by the world’s most famous skateboarder, Tony Hawk.

Katie has been impressed with the scope of the foundation, which she said has spent more than $5.5 million in helping communities build skateparks across the United States and in countries including

Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa.

“They definitely focus on the creation of public skateparks, especially in low-income communities where they see kids as high-risk, whether out of boredom, small town …” Katie said.

For the Ortos, a public skatepark signifies more than a place to test your quarter-pipe twists and kickflips.

They see it as an indication of a vibrant community that’s open-minded towards youth and families.

And, with few other skateparks nearby, Katie thinks kid-friendly attractions like a skatepark could draw visitors to the town of about 1,200 — and maybe keep some of the locals around.

“I know our city can be known for more than a flea market … and that we’re not just a tourist community,” she said. “I want to show the people that we’re not just committed to tourists; we’re committed to our citizens, too.

“We live here, and we want a good quality of life … I think that if our kids find it enjoyable to live here and we raise well-rounded kids, they’d be more likely to stay here even if they had to commute for a job.

People don’t mind commuting for a job if they enjoy where they live.”

Although a skatepark may not seem like much to some people, for Matthew and his friends it could go a long way to helping them feel they live in an inclusive, safe environment.

Regardless, the plan won’t cost the city — and therefore taxpayers — a penny.

“At this point, it’s all going to be 100-percent donated money, donated land, donated funds to maintain it, build it,” Katie said. “And we’re going to be doing this as people of the community as a whole … The city will be getting a free park.

“But they have to let us put it somewhere,” she added with a laugh.

Sometimes big things start small. Princeton may just be the beginning.

“There is no limit, really, to where we would expand if needed. So [expanding to] extra community involvement or the Green Lake area — Green Lake County would be fantastic,” Katie said. “But I’d always like to start right here in Princeton, because that’s where we need it.”