A Great Leap Forward 

A skate park on Mud Island would put our city on the map.

Two and a half years ago, Smart City Consulting came to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to ask some 30 scientists, including me, a straightforward question: What does Memphis need to improve in order to better attract and retain professionals?

Not surprisingly, safety, schools, and career opportunities were ranked as essentials, but what also ranked high on the list were recreational venues, including bike trails, running paths, and green space. I also mentioned the need for a signature downtown skate park — ideally, at the Mud Island River Park.

So what is a skate park? Skate parks come in all shapes and sizes and materials. But the size of the park referred to here is on the scale of a football field, including the end zones. Our skate park would consist of concrete curvy forms, stairs, ledges, and other elements that would appeal to a host of wheeled enthusiasts, including BMX bikers, roller bladers, roller skaters, and skateboarders. We would like to see a roller-derby rink integrated into the design as well.   

For the curvy forms, imagine a series of interconnected minature moon craters. One of the key features would be a snake-run that looks like a scaled-up version of the Mississippi River model. This feature would give the user an experience equivalent to skiing, snowboarding, or water-surfing. 

Imagine what it would be like to free-fall down a 10-foot wave or to race along a wave for 20 or 30 seconds. Imagine your best day skiing, in which you carved perfect hypnotic figure eights in the powder and for a few seconds were lost in the escape of a pure adrenaline rush.

What I have described is what you can experience with the current generation of skate parks. Toss out your old ideas of rickety half-pipe ramps and cracked sidewalks, because skate-park designers have taken skate parks to a whole new level.

Tom Jones of Smart City Consulting followed through with our initial conversation at St. Jude and arranged a meeting with the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and representratives of the Hyde Family Foundations in March 2007. From our conversations, a skate-park feasibility study on Mud Island was funded by the Hyde Family Foundations and completed in the fall of 2007. All findings pointed toward building the country's largest skate park on Mud Island. 

In the winter of 2008, city leaders got cold feet. The project was put on the shelf in favor of a public land-use study that started a year later in March 2009. In short, the RDC needed to create a zoning map for the River Park in which land usage would be defined by public input.

Three phases of public input meetings were held over the past six months, with the final meetings held last week. Supporters of the skate park comprised approximately 80 percent of the attendees (ranging from 50 to 100 people) at these meetings. Through every phase, building a premier skate park was, resoundingly, the favored use by both skateboarders and non-skateboarders alike. 

The resonating theme of skate-park supporters was to build a people magnet that would fill a recreational void for a diverse, high-repeat-user base and would phase in other family-friendly features which would be sustained and utilized by park visitors (users and watchers) drawn to the magnet.

Several of us are hopeful that the skate park will jump off the pages of the final land-use report, just as it stood out during the public meetings and surveys. It's important when public officials read this final report that they know that public support at the land-use study meetings was anchored in support of the skate park.

Memphis can build on the precedents of such pioneer skate-park cities as Colorado Springs, Portland, Oregon, and Louisville, Kentucky. I am asking the leadership of our community at all levels, from the public and private sector, to step up. Let's get this done and jump our city ahead!

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