Feeling Minnesota

Minnesota is known for its skates, at least those of the ice variety. Many Minnesota natives ice skate before they walk.

Perhaps an outgrowth of this Born to Skate tradition is the relatively recent explosion of skateparks that makes Minnesota one of the top states for skateparks per capita in the U.S.

"I don't know what it is with our state, but I've counted 55 parks. Most of them are outdoor, public skateparks. There's a skatepark everywhere. You don't have to drive 50 miles anywhere in this state to find one," says Mark Muller, who owns 3rd Lair in Golden Valley, Minn.

Muller relocated 3rd Lair to Golden Valley from the heart of the Twin Cities about two years ago. Golden Valley sits on the outskirts of Minneapolis, about eight miles west.

Muller says that three of the surrounding communities have a public skatepark. When Golden Valley began planning to build a public skatepark Muller presented his case.

"When you run a business, and the city suddenly comes along and runs the same business but gives it away, then you're asking, 'How can I compete with that?' During the summer months when the kids can go outdoors and skate for free at public parks our business goes way down," says Muller.

"What if you had a 7-11, and the city opened a 7-11 next door, but gave away their stuff for free? Of course, the 7-11 that sells will go out of business."

Community Collaboration

Rather than whine about the explosion of free competition, Muller has been proactive and positive. For one, Muller proposed a compromise solution to Golden Valley.

Muller's compromise, which the city accepted, was to open the outdoor portion of its skatepark to free skating for Golden Valley residents only. The city reciprocated by giving a portion of what it would have spent on a skatepark to 3rd Lair to subsidize this residents-only program.

"We accomplished the city's main goal -- which was to provide free skating to its residents -- at a fraction of the cost they were considering spending," explains Muller.

One of the first steps in the public skatepark planning process is to research and identify any local, private skatepark businesses, recommends Muller. Muller defines "local" as about a 50-mile radius.

If there's a private skatepark nearby, Muller says it's best not to interfere with that business by building a public park. However, there are collaboration possibilities.

These possibilities are not your classic public-private partnerships. Rather, they are the exploration of the true needs of the community, and then finding creative solutions to those needs.

For instance, Muller works with a number of public skateparks in the area to provide paid programming at those facilities. The benefits fall in line both ways as the parks and recreation district is provided with programming, while the liability for that programming is taken off the district's shoulders and placed on 3rd Lair's. Meanwhile, 3rd Lair realizes the revenue from running camps and after-school programs.

3rd Lair will also run demos, contests and other special events at public skateparks. While not crazy about the explosion of public parks, Muller has decided to deal with the reality as proactively as possible.

"During the summer months we use the public parks to run our skateboard camps. They don't have anyone in the city who knows how to run a skateboard camp. We try to work with them and utilize them instead of letting them put us out of business," says Muller.

"Park districts who are interested in something like this should make sure the skatepark that they'll be doing business with is reputable and has experience. The city should do whatever it can to work with the private sector. Nine times out of ten, those who own private skateparks have been in the industry their whole lives, and will know how to teach skateboarding."

Another area of potential collaboration is filling particular niches that aren't currently being served. A private skatepark might only serve intermediate and advanced skaters, for instance. The parks district could build a beginner skatepark that not only serves that need but feeds improving beginners to the private skatepark.

Muller, however, is skeptical, as his skatepark has terrain for all skating levels and says that any skatepark, regardless of its relative challenge, competes with 3rd Lair.

"Minneapolis is a pretty big city but it does not have a public skatepark. We supplied a skatepark when we were in the city for our first few years; the kids didn't need one, because they had ours," says Muller.

"If the private sector is doing its job it should be providing decent terrain to the skateboarders in the town, so there shouldn't be a need for a public park. People want something well-built and well-designed."