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Owens Field Skate Park opening can't wait

David Toole stood at the top of one of the concrete bowls at the new Owens Field Skate Park, bundled against a biting cold wind but feeling a certain warmth deep inside.

"I've been wanting a skate park in my town since I was 11," said Toole, 36. "I remember the first time I was busted for skating (on private property) in Irmo, I told the cop there wasn't anyplace we could skate legally."

The officer recommended Toole work with public officials to get a skate facility built. Twenty-five years later, the area finally has a first-rate, public skate park. The 14,500-square-foot custom concrete park, which opens this weekend, replaces a small skate park many local skaters considered inadequate.

"It shouldn't have taken so long," Toole said, before adding the end result was worth the wait.

The pent-up desire for a skate facility showed in recent weeks. As the bowls and rails took shape, city parks officials had to run off skaters almost daily at the unfinished facility.

When a local TV station prematurely reported that the park was open last weekend, hundreds of kids showed up. They were allowed to skate Saturday and Sunday, but park rangers began shooing skaters again on Monday. There were still some safety concerns, and the city didn't want the kids to damage the facility before the construction company signed off on the finished product, said Damon McDuffie, parks planner for the city.

But when the city allowed limited skating Wednesday afternoon for a photo session, McDuffie and Dianne Rushing, who managed the construction for AOS Specialty Contractors, saw the enthusiasm and came up with a compromise. The final safety concerns could be dealt with this week, workers could work around peak skating times on the finishing touches and the park could open as soon as rules signs were posted. That could be as early as this weekend but more likely will be next week, McDuffie said.

A grand opening event is still scheduled for March 6, but the three major bowls and the long alley filled with boxes and rails will be broken in by then.

Those who already have hit the concrete love it.

"When I first started working to get this thing built, I wondered 'What will it look like?'" said Caleb Brown, 15, of Columbia. "I never imagined it would be this great."

Caleb is too young to have lived the full, frustrating history of skate parks in the Midlands. Toole and others have been pleading with municipal officials in Richland and Lexington counties for decades to build skate parks. Frustrated that nobody would listen, several skaters in the 1990s built a makeshift facility they called "The Slab" on an abandoned railroad loading dock where the USC Greek housing is now. It was packed on weekends.

In 1999, Columbia put up some metal skate structures in a small section of Owens Field Park. But skaters had little input in the design. The skate surface was small and the structures weren't what most skaters wanted. Still, kids showed up and loved the place.

Jack Winburn had just been bitten by the skateboard bug in 2007 when the old skate park was torn down to make room for a running track.

"When he saw them bulldozing it, I thought he was going to die," said Mark Winburn, Jack's father. "We've been driving by here ever since they tore the other one down, watching for the new one."

In the meantime, Jack honed his skills on the skate park at Plex Indoor Sports in Northeast Richland and at skate events around the Southeast. The 7-year-old shows no fear now dropping into the 8-foot bowls at Owens Field.

"It's great," Jack said of the park.

"This is more than we hoped for," said Ryan Cockrell, who many skaters credit with pushing to make sure the facility was built and was done well. "I've skated so many parks, but this one is up there among my favorites."

Cockrell formed a nonprofit group, Pour It Now, that brought together skaters and gave them a clear voice at government meetings. "Ryan figured the ins and outs of the system for us," Toole said.

Pour It Now proved skaters weren't just a bunch of punks by lining up a $25,000 grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation and staging several well-attended events, including a Skate and Create art show at the Columbia Museum of Art. The group raised about $35,000 for the project.

Cockrell and Toole, owner of Blue Tile Skate Shop, worked with city planners and lined up famed skate park architect Wally Hollyday to design the facility. They used examples from other states to convince Columbia that a well-designed skate park would be a true amenity. They cited studies showing more kids ride skateboards than play baseball.

City Council finally bought into the idea, agreeing in 2008 to spend $500,000 in hospitality tax revenue on the skate park. To skaters, the planning process seemed to plod along. But once construction began, the project cruised. The construction finished ahead of schedule and slightly under budget, McDuffie said.

The skate park was supposed to open in April. Fast-track construction pushed the official opening date to March 6. Insatiable demand moved it up another two weeks.

"It's going to be so crowded and so overused, it's going to be painfully obvious we need more like this," Toole said.

Cockrell said an area with the population of metropolitan Columbia needs about 64,000 square feet of skate parks. He sees Owens Field as the major park, with smaller ones built in other communities. A park already is in the planning stages in Blythewood.

Flush with the success at Owens Field, Cockrell has set his sights higher.

"Our goal is a skate park in every neighborhood," he said.

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