Virginia Beach started charging for its skate parks last year. Are the fees keeping kids away?

City workers make repairs to the Williams Farm Skate Park in Virginia Beach. (Sean C. Davis/Southside Daily)

VIRGINIA BEACH — The city of Virginia Beach is home to three public skate parks that, until last year, were free of charge to use. Fees were instituted to help offset the cost of staffing them during the day, according to the city. Some local skateboarders, however, feel they’ve done more harm than good.

Adult residents can pay $30 for an annual membership or $5 for a day pass to skate all three of the parks, an amount that added up to just under $38,000 for fiscal year 2016-17. The facilities also require that participants wear helmets at all times and prohibit eating and smoking within them. The paid staff strictly enforce these rules, a contrast to similar facilities in Norfolk and Chesapeake, which are often unstaffed and more loosely regulated.

“We staff our three skate parks to provide the safest environment possible, quick response for incidents/accidents, and also to enforce park rules/regulations such as our helmet requirement,” Julie Braley, parks and recreation public relations manager, wrote in an email.

Because of those aims, she added, the department does not expect to change its staffing policy in the future. All of the facilities have been staffed since the park at Mount Trashmore was opened in 2003.

Many of the skateboarders themselves, members of a culture that is sometimes at odds with authority, see it differently.

“Unstaffed, unsupervised parks are the way to go. That’s what brings the community together,” said Tito Porrata of Team Pain, the company that built the skate elements of the city’s last park, Williams Farm. “Case study after case study, when you make kids have to pay, attendance goes severely down.”

Others believe the fees are hurting low-income kids who can’t afford to pay them.

“The rich kids will be fine,” local skater Mike Fava wrote in a Facebook message. “But the kids whose parents won’t pay for them to have a skate pass or who think that skating is a [children’s] hobby, they will have nothing or quit.”

“If the parks were installed to keep kids active and out of trouble [and from] playing in the streets, how are they effective if we cannot reach many of them because they are now required to pay?” Jesse Irish, another local skater asked.

According to the city, the facilities have seen fewer visitors since implementing the fees. It’s hard to say if that’s entirely because of the cost, however, as they had also seen shrinking attendance every year for several years prior to that as well.

“Based on our experience, communication with other cities, and our research, it appears that skateboarding is generally continuing to trend downward, but is still a widely recognized sport,” Braley wrote.

Mike Kitchen, a sponsored skater who grew up in the area, agreed that the trend appears to be within skateboarding itself.

“For the old school the culture is still alive and thriving. We’re still hanging together and everything. We became pro by accident,” he said. “Now people push to be pro and if they don’t get it they quit. No culture.”

“I’ve been seeing a new trend of people getting out and skating street more. This is the culture fighting to come back around, full circle,” he added.

Fava blamed the drop in attendance on the way the rules have been enforced. He said he was unfairly barred from entering a park on one occasion and when he tried to make a complaint, calling the city several times, he was never able to speak with anyone.

“I hadn’t gone in two years,” he said. “I drive to Norfolk so I don’t have to deal with this mess.”

Braley said that the department had never heard of any instances in which skateboarders from other areas had neglected to come to their parks because of the fee. In fact, she noted, they sell more day passes than annual memberships.

Last year’s update to the city’s “outdoor plan” recommended building more skate parks over the next couple decades. That, however, doesn’t mean they’ll be adding any new facilities anytime soon.

“Based on the National Standards for Recreational Facilities, which is based on population, we show a need for additional skate park facilities,” Braley wrote. “However, our skate park facilities are larger than most and are also strategically located in the city, so we feel comfortable with our current facilities. We have no current plans underway for additional skate park facilities at this time.”

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