Unclogging The System

Heidi Lemmon at SPAUSA helps remove obstacles facing public and private skateparks.

Heidi Lemmon of the SkatePark Association of the United States of America must not sleep.

That’s the only way to explain how one woman has been able to accomplish so much on the behalf of skaters in the short time since SPAUSA was created in 1996. There’s been lots of talk about the skatepark boom¿but without folks like Lemmon offering wealths of information and assistance, there’d certainly be fewer parks built (and built well), and lots more problems insuring both skaters and parks.

So how’d this photographer-designer-skate mom from Santa Monica, California end up spearheading a national organization to promote skateboarding? Like so many good ideas, this one was borne of necessity.

Beginnings Of The Revolution

“My son and his friends would skate down at the park at the corner all the time,” recalls Lemmon. “A lot of the pros skated there; it had a very well-known rail that showed up in a lot of the magazines.”

It turns out that the park’s popularity with skaters made some local renters unhappy¿their complaints led to the removal of the rail and the park becoming off-limits to skating. The man the city hired for the rail demolition gave the kids permission to take the rail home, and Lemmon’s son did just that.

“A policeman came over to our house and wanted the rail back,” Lemmon says, “and he wanted to charge the kids with theft! I told the policeman that my husband and I said no.”

The situation escalated from there for the Lemmons: the police captain called them up and said they would be charged with possession of stolen property and obstruction of justice. “I was nervous,” Lemmon states, “they were showing force!”

A break came when the family received a phone tip from a sympathetic officer who wished to remain anonymous; he told them that the kids were right and did have permission to keep the rail, and he gave them some ideas of what they could do. Additionally, an attorney friend of Heidi Lemmon’s told her to find the demolition/removal permit, which would name who had the right to dispose of the rail. When the police were informed that the man who gave the kids the rail had that right, they backed off. But Lemmon’s adventures in skate organizing had just begun.

“At that time,” says Lemmon, “the kids were getting ticketed for skating and having their boards taken away, so we started going up against the city to get them a park. We held two demonstrations, and to make it short, the kids don’t get ticketed anymore, and there is a park for them to go to at the Boys and Girls Club.”

The victory came with a price: “Nasty small-town politics!” recalls Lemmon with a chuckle. “I had a threat from one of the local parks and rec commissioners! They got the local paper not to cover the story anymore. The parks and rec commissioner had told me not to talk to press, but I did¿I felt I still had my rights under the First Amendment and all. Then at about 2:00 a.m., our house was surrounded by four squad cars, lights on, and my husband’s car was towed. No citation was ever issued. Another time¿my car was gone, stolen. Could have been an unlucky coincidence … I suspect outright harassment, because both incidents occurred the night after I talked to the press.”

In the meantime, all the calls Lemmon had made to existing city skateparks amassed more information on the subject than anyone else at the time had in one place. Soon, frustrated skaters began calling her for info. “After what I had been through with the police and with the city,” Lemmon says, “I really felt for these kids. I don’t think kids are equipped for this kind of nonsense¿I wasn’t prepared for it! It was a real eye opener.”

Lemmon’s career was in design and manufacturing, but when she became involved with skateboarding, it pretty much took over her life. She offially quit the design world two years ago, seemingly without regrets: “These skaters are without a doubt the most decent people I have ever worked with! All the guys who own the shops, own the businesses, are great. Design and manufacturing involved a lot of backstabbing! You’d design a product, it’d go into the showroom, and by the time the product was on the market it had already been knocked off!”

One aspect of the skate industry that really impressed Lemmon was how savvy young kids are about the business itself: “They learn at an early age that you don’t buy your board at the local Kmart. They keep business tight to their core. Kids build a relationship with the local skate shop. It’s a nice business.”

The Name Is Everything

SPAUSA, as far as acronyms and abbreviations go, has a wholesome, All-American feel to it. It sounds legitimate and respectable¿which was exactly why Lemmon chose it.

“What happened back in 1996 was the city wouldn’t return my calls because I was just somebody’s mother,” Lemmon remembers. “The kids and I decided that we needed a business name to get more attention and be official, and we created SPAUSA right then. There already was a World Skate Park Association and a World Skate Park Federation. We weren’t looking for any sort of world domination, so we chose USA.” Ironically, because some other countries have the same sorts of skateboarding insurance problems as the U.S., SPAUSA does get international calls for help.

The name got Lemmon’s phone calls returned during the Santa Monica conflict, but to this day she’s not sure how so many skateboarders found her to ask for help. “Now we’re on the Internet at spausa.org,” she says. “We’d tried to get on the Internet from square one¿but we got a runaround about cost, ‘It’ll cost you ten-thousand dollars,’ et cetera. Mark Strosberg at summersault.com wanted to help us out and host our site. All my previous problems with a Web site disappeared! A skater kid named Justin Simoni at the university in Boulder updates our site; he’s just fantastic. Mark helps us more than as just a host¿summersault is a skater community.”

Call It Lemmon Aid

SPAUSA has several primary goals and provides the following services free of charge: information to cities, press, and individuals; support for groups in the process of trying to get a park; support to skaters; referrals for landscape architects and builders; and limited legal aid.

Because insurance is such a big issue for skateparks, it has also become a major focus of SPAUSA. Lemmon explains, “A lot of skateparks had problems with insurance¿getting it at all, or the cost being too high. We researched with USA Hockey and found out they do this program through K & K, which does more ‘extreme’ sports insurance than any other insurer. So through our broker we got the same program for our members, except ours has 100,000 dollars medical coverage. Cities have a harder time getting insurance¿this program is for supervised parks, which are generally private parks. The kids become self-insured¿insurance is included in their SPAUSA membership.

“Dirt-track racing uses a program just like this through K & K¿the riders pay an entry fee for each race and are covered wherever they go. Our program involves each kid becoming insured, and then they can move freely from park to park. It takes the burden of insurance off the skatepark.”

Lemmon comes up with some examples of her program in action: “A park in New York called True only charges the SPAUSA membership fee¿25 dollars if under eighteen, and 32 if over eighteen¿and that includes park membership. Some parks have their own park fee and include SPAUSA membership for 40 to 75 dollars a year. Then they the skater members have a million dollars’ liability coverage and a hundred-thousand excess medical coverage; the park only has to have general insurance and can spend their money on ramps instead. If a shop puts a little ramp in back and the kids belong to SPAUSA, they can skate and the shop is covered. Insurance is part of our membership program¿one of the benefits¿but if someone is just looking for insurance, we refer them to agencies.”

The burden parks have been shouldering to cover insurance shouldn’t be underestimated¿one park Lemmon spoke with had an insurance bill of 25,000 dollars a year! “They recently got insurance through our broker and K & K, although they haven’t joined our SPAUSA program yet, and they’ve cut that bill in half. That could make or break a business.” Lemmon adds, “And I think K & K is making money¿I don’t think skaters are being injured in high numbers!”

Vans Skatepark in Orange, California is involved in a skateboarding-injuries study with the nearby University of California, Irvine Hospital. According to both Vans and UCI’s records, out of the 16,500 skaters who use the park each month, approximately one in 1,600 (or about ten skaters a month) is taken to the emergency room¿a relatively low number for the amount of skater visits.

The battles are really never over for Lemmon and SPAUSA¿currently there’s been a bit of governmental hassle over the organization’s nonprofit status. Because of this the group may have to separate the work they do into two parts, with the membership and insurance benefits falling under incorporated business (although many similar organizations are not forced to do this). The nonprofit work with cities is where SPAUSA actually spends most of its time and energy¿helping kids get free parks built in their cities, including instruction on how to approach a city council. “There’s no income there for us,” Lemmon says. “The cities don’t join SPAUSA, and there’re almost no supervised parks. The cities just want to build the parks and never have to touch them again. But, cities like to see info from a national organization; they often don’t listen to their own locals’ opinions.”

SPAUSA serves as a sort of skatepark troubleshooter. They have a list of park builders and can help folks when they hit a snag as the parks are planned and built. Lemmon thinks of a perfect example of how she can help: “There was a wooden park being built in the Midwest, where the local fire department wanted builders to put sprinklers inside the ramps! So we stepped in there and explained how it works.”

She also mentions a skatepark in Sonoma, California, where an incorrect finish was put on the nearly completed concrete surface, rendering the park unskateable and unsafe. Now in a stalemate over repairs, the park may not be opened for another two years¿think how unhappy skaters in that area are!

But lest readers get the wrong idea, Lemmon makes one thing very clear: “I don’t make decisions on my own about design and safety¿I have builders who get back to me, an advisory board.” The advisory board attempts to reach a consensus on several issues facing skatepark building¿including increased safety issues. “One concern a lot of cities have is getting an injured skater out of a bowl,” concurs Lemmon, “so now we’re encouraging builders to incorporate escapes¿hatches, trap doors, walk-outs, et cetera.”

At the September ASR show, SPAUSA and its advisory board will host a meeting with the intent of generating design ideas and guidelines to encourage safety, skateability, and the like. “Real technical stuff,” clarifies Lemmon. “We don’t want to discourage creativity¿there has to be freedom of design to let parks grow. Our concerns are primarily the concrete parks being built by unqualified people. We’re encouraging private skatepark owners to meet together with the group.”

Lemmon is concerned that bad parks are being built because information to build a good park isn’t readily available: “So we’d like to share that sort ofe and can spend their money on ramps instead. If a shop puts a little ramp in back and the kids belong to SPAUSA, they can skate and the shop is covered. Insurance is part of our membership program¿one of the benefits¿but if someone is just looking for insurance, we refer them to agencies.”

The burden parks have been shouldering to cover insurance shouldn’t be underestimated¿one park Lemmon spoke with had an insurance bill of 25,000 dollars a year! “They recently got insurance through our broker and K & K, although they haven’t joined our SPAUSA program yet, and they’ve cut that bill in half. That could make or break a business.” Lemmon adds, “And I think K & K is making money¿I don’t think skaters are being injured in high numbers!”

Vans Skatepark in Orange, California is involved in a skateboarding-injuries study with the nearby University of California, Irvine Hospital. According to both Vans and UCI’s records, out of the 16,500 skaters who use the park each month, approximately one in 1,600 (or about ten skaters a month) is taken to the emergency room¿a relatively low number for the amount of skater visits.

The battles are really never over for Lemmon and SPAUSA¿currently there’s been a bit of governmental hassle over the organization’s nonprofit status. Because of this the group may have to separate the work they do into two parts, with the membership and insurance benefits falling under incorporated business (although many similar organizations are not forced to do this). The nonprofit work with cities is where SPAUSA actually spends most of its time and energy¿helping kids get free parks built in their cities, including instruction on how to approach a city council. “There’s no income there for us,” Lemmon says. “The cities don’t join SPAUSA, and there’re almost no supervised parks. The cities just want to build the parks and never have to touch them again. But, cities like to see info from a national organization; they often don’t listen to their own locals’ opinions.”

SPAUSA serves as a sort of skatepark troubleshooter. They have a list of park builders and can help folks when they hit a snag as the parks are planned and built. Lemmon thinks of a perfect example of how she can help: “There was a wooden park being built in the Midwest, where the local fire department wanted builders to put sprinklers inside the ramps! So we stepped in there and explained how it works.”

She also mentions a skatepark in Sonoma, California, where an incorrect finish was put on the nearly completed concrete surface, rendering the park unskateable and unsafe. Now in a stalemate over repairs, the park may not be opened for another two years¿think how unhappy skaters in that area are!

But lest readers get the wrong idea, Lemmon makes one thing very clear: “I don’t make decisions on my own about design and safety¿I have builders who get back to me, an advisory board.” The advisory board attempts to reach a consensus on several issues facing skatepark building¿including increased safety issues. “One concern a lot of cities have is getting an injured skater out of a bowl,” concurs Lemmon, “so now we’re encouraging builders to incorporate escapes¿hatches, trap doors, walk-outs, et cetera.”

At the September ASR show, SPAUSA and its advisory board will host a meeting with the intent of generating design ideas and guidelines to encourage safety, skateability, and the like. “Real technical stuff,” clarifies Lemmon. “We don’t want to discourage creativity¿there has to be freedom of design to let parks grow. Our concerns are primarily the concrete parks being built by unqualified people. We’re encouraging private skatepark owners to meet together with the group.”

Lemmon is concerned that bad parks are being built because information to build a good park isn’t readily available: “So we’d like to share that sort of information or make it available. Guys like Tim Payne are a little concerned about giving away trade secrets, although I think he’ll take an active part in developing safety guidelines.”

Back in Santa Monica in 1996, a bunch of young skaters needed a competent friend who could help them attain some goals¿even one so simple as the right to skate in their own town. Lemmon hasn’t forgotten her role: “Our group SPAUSA is loose-knit because I’m trying to organize a group that isn’t into being organized. Remember, these are basically artists and musicians we’re talking about, which I suspect may have something to do with why the police target them for harassment¿their temperaments are such that they tend to avoid conflict rather than fight. I’m here to carry out the wishes of this group of people, not my own wishes.”

Notes From Inside SPAUSA

Heidi Lemmon wants you to know …

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed lately is churches that have contacted us about insurance to cover their skateparks. I think churches realize they’re losing the kids; they need to reach out to meet them. So a lot are doing good skate programs.”

* * * * *

“Promising new surfaces are becoming available¿Skatelite is terribly expensive and cost-prohibitive. I met a guy who creates those climbing walls, and they’re making skatepark elements from this same concrete-like stuff called SkateCrete. It’s lighter than concrete and sturdy, and the pieces can be moved. And SPAUSA advisory board-member Mel Durand is currently testing inexpensive plastic surfaces.”

* * * * *

“We quiz kids about their interests on the membership cards, and their most popular interests are music and art. These are kids whose public perceptions are as ‘gangbangers’ and stuff, but they are really creative and artistic. Oddly enough these are the two subjects that have been cut from a lot of school programs, so these kids are being let down in a lot of ways.”

* * * * *

“A lot of inner-city kids who could have joined gangs are embracing skateboarding. The cities that want to put parks only in the affluent areas are mistakenly thinking those are the only kids who skate, but that’s not true. You may have heard of our SPAUSA’s struggle to get a park built in the Rampart area of L.A. scheduled to open in May. I just get the worst runaround from the L.A. city council.”

t of information or make it available. Guys like Tim Payne are a little concerned about giving away trade secrets, although I think he’ll take an active part in developing safety guidelines.”

Back in Santa Monica in 1996, a bunch of young skaters needed a competent friend who could help them attain some goals¿even one so simple as the right to skate in their own town. Lemmon hasn’t forgotten her role: “Our group SPAUSA is loose-knit because I’m trying to organize a group that isn’t into being organized. Remember, these are basically artists and musicians we’re talking about, which I suspect may have something to do with why the police target them for harassment¿their temperaments are such that they tend to avoid conflict rather than fight. I’m here to carry out the wishes of this group of people, not my own wishes.”

Notes From Inside SPAUSA

Heidi Lemmon wants you to know …

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed lately is churches that have contacted us about insurance to cover their skateparks. I think churches realize they’re losing the kids; they need to reach out to meet them. So a lot are doing good skate programs.”

* * * * *

“Promising new surfaces are becoming available¿Skatelite is terribly expensive and cost-prohibitive. I met a guy who creates those climbing walls, and they’re making skatepark elements from this same concrete-like stuff called SkateCrete. It’s lighter than concrete and sturdy, and the pieces can be moved. And SPAUSA advisory board-member Mel Durand is currently testing inexpensive plastic surfaces.”

* * * * *

“We quiz kids about their interests on the membership cards, and their moost popular interests are music and art. These are kids whose public perceptions are as ‘gangbangers’ and stuff, but they are really creative and artistic. Oddly enough these are the two subjects that have been cut from a lot of school programs, so these kids are being let down in a lot of ways.”

* * * * *

“A lot of inner-city kids who could have joined gangs are embracing skateboarding. The cities that want to put parks only in the affluent areas are mistakenly thinking those are the only kids who skate, but that’s not true. You may have heard of our SPAUSA’s struggle to get a park built in the Rampart area of L.A. scheduled to open in May. I just get the worst runaround from the L.A. city council.”