by Courtney Price

CORNELIUS – Art Sabates wants to ensure that The Board Room Skate Park stays open. That’s why he’s backing out of a deal that would have given the year-old park to the town.

Sabates, who owns Shops on the Green shopping center, originally offered to donate the park’s equipment – $115,000 worth – in the hopes that the town could help the park stay open. The donation included the ramps, the sound system and the surveillance equipment.

He also agreed to rent the space to the town for $1 a year for three years, which the town reported would normally rent for $70,000 a year.

Following a recommendation from Commissioner Jim Bensman, the Town Board agreed Dec. 20 to accept Sabates’ donation, but did not commit to operate the park. Instead Bensman suggested that the town take 90 days to create a thorough business plan, or if the staff found that the park was not sustainable, the town could back out of the lease and remove the park’s equipment from the site.

During the meeting, Town Attorney Bill Brown told the board that if the Park, Arts, Recreation and Culture Department was to run the park, the town could gain immunity from lawsuits by requiring every skater to wear kneepads, elbow pads and helmets.

“For an indoor skate park,” Town Manager Anthony Roberts said, “you have to have staff to monitor it. Put the pads on, and if you don’t put them on, you’ll have to leave.”

Sabates said once he realized the town intended to require pads, he declined to turn the park over.

“It would inevitably fail,” Sabates said. “… I was not aware that the town would make that a requirement.”
Sabates has private liability insurance for the park that only requires children 8 and younger wear full pads, although all skaters are required to wear helmets.

“The town had a fiscal responsibility to ensure immunity, and I don’t fault them for that,” he said.
But if the town requires full padding, Sabates said attendance would plummet and he points to the Grayson Skate Park in Charlotte as proof.
The Grayson park, which is run by the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department, used to only require helmets, Sabates said. “But about a year ago they started requiring padding, and now it’s almost a ghost town. Almost no skateboarders go there. Kids after age 8 don’t wear pads.”
Attendance data for Grayson Skate Park was not immediately available.

“If the town did (require the padding), you’d maybe get 5 to 10 percent of the kids,” Sabates said. “I was saving the town a big headache.”
He said he was also making sure the skaters in Cornelius have a place to practice their sport.

“These kids are athletes,” Sabates said, “they’re not just nuisances.  The park really turned into something I can be proud of. If anyone goes to watch these kids, they’ll see it’s a melting pot right in that park…. Those kids respect each other.”

Sabates told The Herald Weekly that his offer still stands.

“If they come back to me in 2011, I’ll give them the same deal – if they remove the (padding) requirement,” he said.

But Roberts said the town won’t budge on that issue.

“I don’t think we would consider giving (the immunity) up, because that leaves you open for lawsuit,” he said. The risk to the taxpayers’ money in a lawsuit is greater than the benefit the town would gain by taking the park, he said.

Sabates said as many as 300 skaters a week use the park, and about 1,000 skateboarders have registered there since it opened in August 2009.
To put the skateboarding need in perspective, in the 2009-10 athletic year Cornelius PARC’s basketball program had 217 participants, and the baseball program had 225.

Roberts and Sabates both expressed interest in working together to provide opportunities for children who skateboard.

“I talked to Mr. Sabates in the last few weeks, and we’re going to try to hold more camps,” Roberts said. “It’s a good sport; kids love it. It’s getting to be more popular than basketball or football.”