Nederland’s Nathan Lazarus Skatepark is on the verge of opening, after five years of effort. I’ve attempted to distill some of what we learned through the advocacy process in hopes that others can learn from our successes and from our mistakes. Our experience is probably most applicable to small communities (Nederland’s population is around 1,500).
Nederland’s skateboarders worked hard to stay in the community’s eye. Seasoned advocates catalog their participation whenever they local teens are engaged in the project.
Nederland can be a great place to live, but let’s face it; if you’re a teen, possibilities for fair-weather leisure time activity are pretty limited. Let’s see, there’s video games, hanging out, video games, hanging out …
In November of 2003, a group of Teens and older supporters began meeting under the guidance of the staff of a local non-profit organization TEENS, Inc., to do something about this situation; their goal was the construction of a free public skatepark in Nederland.
In April of 2004, the teens and their supporters packed a meeting of the Nederland Board of Trustees, where they gave a multimedia presentation and convinced the Board to support the project and to site it on town-owned land adjacent to the Teen Center (owned and operated by TEENS, Inc.). Unfortunately, the town had no money, so the land, and a later commitment of some fill dirt and landscaping help from the Public Works Director, was all the support that would come from that quarter.
The advocates hadn’t really thought beyond making their case to the town board, and the effort stagnated for a few months, until the facilitator, Kevin Brazanskas, quit to move out of state, and attempted to recruit some additional community members to the cause and to reengage the group before leaving. He reconvened the group in late August of 2004; I was one of those invited to attend the meeting, and this marks my first involvement with the project.
More than anything else, the success of our project is the result of unshakable belief in our ultimate success and of unswerving commitment to the project. One thing that successful advocacy efforts seem to have in common, is that they have one or two ultra-committed individuals, who devote enormous amounts of time to organize and lead the cause. When, in the course of the first months of my involvement with our project, I didn’t see any one else stepping forward to assume that role, and knowing that the project would never succeed without someone doing so, I decided to take it on myself. I never asked the group if they’d like me to do this, but staged a “friendly takeover,” by taking the initiative in all areas of the project. This ultimately meant considerable sacrifice for my family, but the dreaded “choose between me and the skatepark” ultimatum never came from my wife, and indeed my wife and kids served as volunteers of last resort throughout the effort; someone from the family could always be counted upon to step up and help, at times when no one else was available.
There was no Skatepark Development Guide available at that time, but there was valuable information available on the web; I modified someone’s sample community survey, and we placed the questionnaires in skateshops and at the Teen Center, and got the local middle-senior high school to distribute them in their monthly mailing. The data from these questionnaires, while by no means a statistically valid sampling, was invaluable later, when it came time to write grants.
We contacted other Colorado municipalities where skateparks had been built and found most very willing to share information. The Parks and Recreation Director of Carbondale wrote us a great letter that we used over and over again to illustrate the positive impact that a skatepark can have in a small community. The City of Boulder Parks Department not only answered all of my questions, but let me come in and pour over the blueprints to their park, as I attempted to get a grasp of the scope of what we were attempting. These and other communities, large and small, shared their experience with maintenance costs and procedures.
After becoming involved, I immediately began pushing to increase the scope of the project, ultimately doubling the size of the proposed skatepark. I contacted the City of Boulder (which owns the reservoir adjacent to the park) to inquire about the possibility of acquiring additional land for the project, and this ultimately resulted in an intergovernmental agreement between the two municipalities that included a land transfer (this took a year). This meant, of course, a lot more money to raise and a longer timeline, but resulted in a park large enough to be a destination skatepark (you’re all planning a Nederland trip, right?).
Half-way into the skatepark campaign, the town’s mayor, Chris Perret, lost a reelection bid, and he showed up at the NEDSK8 office the following day, saying he wanted to devote his free time to getting the skatepark built. He became the super-volunteer that every project like this needs: someone willing to show up for every fundraising event, to help set up, break down and facilitate the effort in any way he can. Chris Perret also knew many people in the community, and wasn’t afraid to hit them up for donations. Our ultimate success owes a lot to his efforts.
We were fortunate not to encounter any organized opposition to our plans. The town government displayed an ambivalent attitude towards us, appreciative of the volunteer effort that did for the town what it didn’t have the resources to do for itself, yet uneasy with the fact that we were beyond its control and pushing a project that was not near the top of its priorities. There was one Trustee, appointed to fill a vacancy well after the project was underway, who bitterly opposed anything and everything that came before the town Board concerning the skatepark project, but he was unable to derail it. We’ve seen two administrations come and go, since first approaching the town government for support (how time flies!), and a third set of Trustees, now sitting, has been very supportive.
A few of our biggest challenges
The site chosen for our park had a lot of things going for it: proximity to the local Teen Center, Town ownership, waterfront views, accessibility … but it also held hidden challenges that we should have uncovered early on and didn’t. (On the other hand, the fact that a critical problem with the site – the spring water table was higher than the frost line – was discovered too late to change course, forced creative thinking to solve the problem). It would have been wise to have an engineer evaluate the site at the outset. I also discovered, not long before construction was scheduled to begin, that the subdivision in which the site was located had never been recorded, and that the land had in fact been leased by the Town to TEENS, Inc.; neither the Town nor TEENS, Inc. was aware of this! Result? Yikes – a last-minute scramble to get a survey, steer a replat through the Town bureaucracy and record a revised subdivision, before we could build. I should have examined the records much earlier in the project.
Local governmental inertia was a major headache. A small town with a very small staff doesn’t necessarily welcome another park to insure and maintain, and that staff won’t necessarily work hard to facilitate its construction. Our town’s Public Works Director was very supportive, whereas our Town Administrator was not, and the latter’s lack of follow-though and commitment probably added a year to the project timeline. Cultivate as good a relationship as possible with your town’s staff, and try to impart your vision to them.
Some people get great mileage from citizen volunteers, but that wasn’t our experience. After a while, you get frustrated with commitments that are never followed through on, and you just do everything yourself. (That’s one reason you need the über-volunteer; one person can only do so much, no matter how committed). Kids are particularly challenging. You need teen involvement in your project, for youth involvement sells your project to funders like puppies on a magazine cover sell magazines, and it’s mostly about the kids, right? Problem is, the teens lose interest quickly; they’d much rather skateboard on crappy makeshift ramps than labor to build themselves a nice park. So … photograph the hell out of their initial participation, before they lose interest and you never see them again, and milk it for all it’s worth.
The funds for our park came from donation jars, special events, grants, a donor brick campaign and direct solicitations/fund drives.
Donation jars won’t build your park, but they are important. They advertise your project, so make the jars colorful and informative. They provide an opportunity for the small donor to give without embarrassment, for a kid to donate her allowance, for a merchant to publicly show civic-mindedness. We raised about $5,000 through this medium. I designed a free-standing stand, consisting of three skateboard decks, screwed to plywood triangles with the points cut off. A discarded 5 gallon plastic water jug was bolted to the upper triangle, with colorful labels attached. A brochure holder was affixed to the outside of one of the decks, in the earlier models, or suspended between the decks in later ones (more out of the way, hence less subject to damage). The jars need to be near the store’s cash register, where people have money in hand. Our best locations: grocery store, pizza parlor, cafés. Worst: drug store, police department (got ripped off, if you can believe it), skate shop (ditto).
Special events provide good publicity, but may not yield much cash. Setting up a tent at a festival and expecting people to stop and donate is a lost cause. Don’t bother, unless you have t-shirts to sell, and even then, it’s questionable. I spent far too many days at festivals, sitting behind a table to collect a paltry sum in donations. Unless you have a lot of dedicated volunteers, a silent auction isn’t worth the incredible amount of work it entails. Bake sales can be well worth the small amount of planning that goes into them. You won’t raise thousands at a bake sale, but you can raise a few hundred bucks a pop, and they provide good exposure. Benefit concerts can be profitable, but nailing down a name band for a gig can be like chasing your tail. If alcohol is served (sad, but true) and if the band plugs your project regularly from the stage, you may make out alright. This can be a good way to raise some initial seed money, when attaining the hundreds of thousands you will need to build your park seems all but impossible; that’s what set us on our way. Pay attention to the return on the investment of your volunteer time; is the event worth it, or would you be better off spending the time going door to door, or making phone calls?
Grants were our largest source of funding by far. Foundations have money to give to worthy causes like yours, but first you have to convince them you will succeed. Get organized, form a corporation and apply for 501(c)(3) status. Do it early in the life of the project; it took us eight months to hear back from the IRS, and even that took assistance from our congressional representative. I completed the application myself; it might have been smarter to seek a CPA or lawyer to do it for us, but it’s not rocket science, and mainly entails just following directions.
Next, you need to show local support. We set our sights on a large grant from the state’s lottery trust fund, knowing that receipt of a grant of this size (up to $200,000) would accord us instant legitimacy in the eyes of private foundations, but failed on our first application, because we had not raised enough local money. We appealed to the community to help us raise $25,000 in time to reapply for this grant. I think we raised $17,000 in a few week’s time – short of our goal, but enough to demonstrate adequate local support for the project, and we were awarded the full $200,000 on our second attempt. We now had attained critical mass, and other grants followed in quick succession. We learned a valuable lesson from this: people will respond to your donation request, if you have a compelling need for a finite amount of money within a specific time frame.
Writing a successful grant application isn’t hard. Some keys to success:
- Give the foundation what it asks for, no more, no less. Read and follow the instructions!
- Make sure your project falls within the foundation’s giving priorities. Call and talk to them; it could save you many hours of futile work.
- Make as compelling a case as you can for your project. Foundations are in the business of dispensing money toward good causes; help them do their job, by providing them with a good solid project to support. Use the data in SPS’s Development Guide, backed up by your local survey results, to help make your case.
- Take the time to format your application and make it look professional, with headers and footers customized for the particular grant you are applying for. Though I was a novice at grant writing, at least one foundation thought I’d hired a professional grant writer, because I made the effort to polish the application.
Donor brick campaigns are a common way for organizations to raise money for capital projects. We probably started our drive too early in the project; there were some early sales, then the majority of our brick purchases came late, after people were convinced the park would really be built. This proved to be labor-intensive. Lots of time spent designing, printing, distributing brochures. Every purchaser received a confirmation letter with a PhotoShop rendering of what their brick would look like. The orders had to be painstakingly formatted, and there was lots of back-and-forth with the engraver on the logo bricks. We raised about $30,000 through bricks, with expenses of about $6,000. One nice thing about the bricks, is that there is the potential for ongoing sales, after the project is complete. We are setting lots of blank bricks that can be replaced with engraved ones from later sales.
We held two productive fund drives. The first was the effort to raise enough money to convince the lottery trust fund board that there was strong local support for our project. The second came late, with the builders scheduled to arrive and a large challenge grant about to expire (the condition of the grant was that all the construction funds had to have been raised). Both succeeded because there were clearly defined goals with a compelling deadline. The last drive was particularly exciting (challenge grants work!). We appealed to supporters though e-mails and through letters in the local paper, and I e-mailed out status updates nearly every day, with a fresh angle to the appeal. Many in the community got caught up in the excitement; strangers would stop me on the street, to ask how we were doing and offer congratulations on progress, and at the end, there were at least five parties that had told me to call them, if we were in danger of coming up short – the community was not about to let us fail. This was a wonderful experience.
Another Catch-22 situation: just as you need money before you have much of a chance obtaining grants, and need the grants to show potential donors you are for real, so you need a park design to show funders what you need the money for, but need some serious money to pay for the design. We charged ahead on faith, and put out a design/build RFP in September of 2005, sending them to six premier skatepark builders. Three responded with proposals. We evaluated the proposals in a systematic manner: I defined some interview questions, and we contacted four references for each company, assigning one reference for each company to each of four board members. (This was to minimize any differences in interviewing skills and any bias the interviewer might have). I also drew up a scoring sheet for our directors to rate each proposal, based upon how well the proposal met the requirements of the RFP, how well the proposal met the needs of our community, etc.. All the directors read and evaluated the RFPs, I compiled the scores, and then we met to make a decision.
Once a design/build firm was selected, we signed a contract for design only; we had only $5K in the bank, so couldn’t commit beyond the design fee of $18K, and the $13K difference came out of my home equity line of credit, which I loaned to NEDSK8, against the advice of the other directors. I was probably the only director convinced we’d succeed at that point, but what chance do you have, if you don’t believe in yourself? You have to commit to do whatever it takes. (We at SPS also don’t recommend putting your house up to help fund the skatepark but we’re sure thankful Randy did! -ed)
We did the typical series of public design meetings, led by an Airspeed representative who flew out and spent ten days with us. A comparison of the actual park with the original design that came out of those meetings reveals radical differences; in the three intervening years, there was plenty of time to rethink aspects of the design. The initiative for some changes came from us, others from the designer, some were necessitated by conditions found on-site; the result was a better park than we’d have had if we’d been flush with cash and ready to build immediately. Sometimes delays are a good thing.
NEDSK8’s agreement with the town stipulates that we are responsible for trash collection and graffiti removal, while the town must do a yearly cure ‘n seal and handle major repairs. We’ve tried to minimize the need for future repairs by prohibiting bikes and making the park as robust as possible – we’ll see how that works out. Our view that the town should be grateful enough at being handed a half-million dollar skatepark to empty the trash cans at its own facility wasn’t shared by the last administration; we hope to revisit that question.
The park will provide challenges and opportunities for TEENS, Inc,, the organization that midwifed this project and continued to support NEDSK8, after we matured enough to move forward on our own. The skatepark is quite literally at its doorstep, and it will have to learn to deal with the influx of skaters that might strain its capacity to serve its young constituents. On the other hand, it opens up opportunities to them for sponsorship of events and for fostering teen mentoring, and will expose many new teens to the organization’s programs.
As for NEDSK8, we are looking ahead at other possibilities for fulfilling our mission of creating recreational opportunities for area youth. We have discussed projects such as a bouldering park, a Frisbee® golf course, a BMX course or a whitewater course. As Nederland’s proposed Gateway Park is defined, we might choose to develop one of its elements, such as a soccer field. We may have to rethink our all-volunteer status, though; I’ve no regrets about the thousands of hours of time I’ve donated to make our skatepark project succeed, but my family does need to eat.
Final Thoughts for the Skatepark Advocate
Don’t be under any illusion that this is anything but a long-term project, needing your long-term commitment. I recall looking at other skatepark advocacy efforts that had been going on for five years or so, and smugly telling myself that we’d succeed much faster. Well, here we are, just finishing up our project five years after those first organizational meetings were held. It will take longer to build your park than you think it will, and it will cost more (set your fundraising target for what the park will cost several years down the road, not what it will cost now). It will require more time and sacrifice than you ever imagined … and it will all be worth it. Good Luck!