Back when Ben Maher was a kid, the only public place to skateboard in Savannah was a lame little park way out on the southside.
Twenty years later, the skating situation is even lamer. That basic concrete park, likely built by some industrious kids in the ‘70s, is long gone.
A few pre–fabricated jobbies popped up in various locations over the years but couldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of so many nosegrinds. While Savannah has one private park that charges an entrance fee, the closest public skatepark is over the state line in Bluffton.
That hasn’t stopped Maher and his buddies from grinding down railings or building mini ramps in their backyards. But he’s never given up on a clean, well–built space to skate.
He’s traveled all over the country, and found that other cities have been on board with public skateboarding facilities for ages, especially Portland, Oregon, whose city council passed a “Skatepark Master Plan” in 2005 that calls for a total of 19 parks around the city (five have been completed.)
“I was really encouraged to see how many local governments support public skateparks,” says the 31-year–old Savannah native. “Public officials see that they’re a great way to get youth involved in a sport and provide recreation.”
Long–haired and inked from bicep to wrist, Maher has also pursued wetlands research (he’s a hair’s breadth from finishing his masters in Marine Science from Savannah State) while spearheading an effort to get Savannah its own concrete park for close to a decade.
With a lease from the county on a Lake Mayer location and a good chunk of funding in place, it looks like it’s finally going to happen. The cause has found support in the art community, and renowned local and national artists have donated their skills to “All Hands on Deck,” a silent auction Friday at Little Beasts Gallery.
Featuring skateboard decks designed by Juliana Peloso, Andrew Brodhead, Matt Hebermehl, Panhandle Slim, Betsy Cain, JRF and Shepard Fairey (yes, the guy who painted President Obama’s iconic “HOPE” portrait), the fundraiser also includes pottery and small works. Eager buyers can preview the works Thursday and Friday from 2–6 p.m.
All proceeds go to Chatham County Skatepark Supporters (CCSS), the non–profit Maher started in 2009 with fellow skateboarder Adam Williams and his mother, educator and longtime Tybee Island councilmember Kathryn Williams.
Back in 2004, Maher began lobbying for a long–lasting cement park and found official support from then–mayor pro tem Jason Buelterman. It looked like the location and funding would come from Tybee Island until a group of residents opposed the idea, citing noise and loitering issues.
The project was tabled after the council shifted sympathies in the 2006 elections.
After taking off a few years to regroup, Maher and the Williams found wholehearted allies for a public skatepark in Chatham County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis.
“I’ve always been behind the skatepark,” said Liakakis over the phone last week. “It will get young people outside and occupied with recreation, and keep them out of trouble. That improves our quality of life in Savannah, and quality of life is what attracts businesses to come and set up shop.”
In April 2010, the Commission awarded CCSS a $10 a year, 20–year lease on a piece of land on the county’s Lake Mayer property, though there would be no public funding for the project.
“We don’t care,” says Maher. “We’ve always been prepared to raise the money ourselves.”
Though the lease is practically free, Maher estimates it will cost around $500,000 to build the park. He says CCSS has raised about a quarter of that. Other fundraisers like Friday’s artist auction are in the pipeline, and CCSS is applying for a grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation, a trust set up by the skateboard star–turned–business mogul to help groups gather resources to build public skateparks in their communities.
The coffers have gotten a huge boost in the last two years from Adam Williams’ connection with national retailer Marc Jacobs. While working at the Broughton Street Marc By Marc Jacobs store, Williams wrote a proposal asking the high–profile designer to create some T–shirts as a benefit for CCSS.
Jacobs not only designed four graphic tees (including one that says “Save the Rails”), the skateboarding fan arranged to donate all the sales of the shirts to the future skatepark — not just Savannah sales, but worldwide sales. So far, the shirts have generated $95,000 for the nonprofit.
To design the park, Maher has already tapped Florida–based Team Pain, a posse of skateboard professionals and designers with a resume that includes the X Games, Tony Hawk videos and city concrete skateparks from Sarasota to Colorado Springs.
Maher says they’ll work with CCSS to bring costs down if donations of concrete and crew lodging can be made once the project breaks ground, projected to take place towards the end of 2012. While the blueprints are nowhere near final and will require approval from the commission, the Savannah skatepark is estimated to cover 25,000 square feet — twice as large as the one in Bluffton.
“The guys from Team Pain have been out to site and walked the lay of the land with me,” says Maher. “They’re already full of ideas.”
While it may have been a fringe activity back in the days of Maher’s adolescence, there’s no denying skateboarding has gone mainstream. A new generation of kids and their families have taken up what they see as a wholesome way to enjoy the outdoors, despite its edgy reputation.
In the words of Pete Liakakis, “This is going to be nothing but good for Savannah.”
“All Hands on Deck”: A Silent Auction to Benefit for Chatham County Skate Park Supporters
When: Friday, Oct. 14, 6–9pm (preview hours Thursday and Friday, Oct. 13–14, 2–6pm)
Where: Little Beasts Gallery, 1522 Bull Street