by Jeremy Morrison
When Jon Shell looks out over the near-empty swath of land underneath the interstate in downtown Pensacola, he’s seeing more than is immediately visible. He’s seeing a space that features a walking trail, exercise stations and a cafe, all anchored with an expansive skateboard park.
“We want to basically fill out this entire city block,” Shell said recently, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup and surveying the property.
For more than a year, Shell has nurtured this vision. He’s gotten buy-in from Mayor Ashton Hayward, and the necessary permission from the Florida Department of Transportation. Now it’s time to ask the Pensacola City Council to sign off on the concept.
This week, Shell will ask the council to support efforts to construct a skatepark and other amenities on the city-owned property. He’s not asking for any money for the project, but the city would be taking on costs associated with keeping up the property once the park is developed.
“It would be incredible for our city,” Shell said.
This concept for a free, public skatepark in Pensacola is coming from a pretty deep place. One rooted in more than the simple want for fun, but rather a place underpinned with a philosophy and mission.
Shell embarked on this mission to get a skatepark built in Pensacola because he feels there’s something missing. More than the absence of a physical facility, there’s an absence of a place.
Throughout the city, there are many parks dedicated to various sports. Well-kept, lighted and with amenities. Football fields, baseball fields, soccer fields, tennis courts and such.
But no public skatepark.
“I feel like there’s a big demographic in town of kids who are just kind of overlooked,” Shell said.
When he was a kid, Shell got turned on to skateboarding early. He recalls being “immediately obsessed.”
“When I started skating, I kinda knew I’d found my thing,” Shell said.
Though there was a private skatepark he frequented with friends, it closed up by the time he was out of middle school. At that point, he pursued terrain offered by the city’s infrastructure itself — the streets, the sidewalks and curbs.
“We’d search out stairs, ledges, and so forth,” Shell remembered.
But it turns out some people don’t care for skateboarders treating the streets as a park. They run the skaters off. Or call the police.
“We just didn’t have anywhere to go to practice this sport we love,” Shell explained.
This lack of acceptable space, lack of inviting place can have an impact. It can create a sense of exclusion. Kids who are constantly told “not here” get the message.
“They kinda start to identify themselves as less-than,” Shell said.
When Shell moved away to Orlando in 2009 to attend the University of Central Florida, he found a land rich with public skateparks. He returned to skateboarding “pretty heavily” and found the area was markedly different than a cityscape riddled with ‘No Skateboarding’ signs.
The parks provided the area’s skateboarding youth somewhere to be. Somewhere to play their preferred sport.
“You could go skate anytime you wanted for free,” Shell said.
From across the state, Shell watched as Pensacola grew. His hometown was experiencing a period of revitalization. People were throwing around the word ‘renaissance’ a lot.
But, still, the area lacked a public skatepark. When he returned home to Pensacola, Shell started thinking about trying to change that.
In 2015, he wrote a blog post laying out his thoughts about the potential for a skatepark. The notion got some traction, but, Shell noted, “at that point it was really just an idea.”
Around this time, something tragic happened. Shell’s friend, Blake Doyle, was hit and killed by a train.
Skateboarding was something the friends enjoyed together. And Shell had grown to be inspired by Doyle, who had lost his leg in high school.
“But he never let that get him down,” Shell recalled about his friend. “Always had a smile, skated on his prosthetic leg through it all.
One day, Shell and some friends, including Doyle’s twin brother Bart, were talking. And the idea of dedicating a skatepark to Blake came up. That effectively cemented the concept.
“Once we decided to do it in memory of Blake, I said, ‘now it’s kind of more than an idea,’” Shell said. “I’m pretty committed to it. It kind of has to happen.”
At first, Shell was exploring the possibility of creating the skatepark at Maritime Park, near the baseball stadium. But then, after conversations with the city, he found the space underneath I-110.
Currently, the space — bordered by Hayne, Jackson, Tarragona and La Rua streets — is empty, save for a small community garden. But it does tie in geographically with the city’s Hollice T. Williams Greenway Framework Plan.
The greenway plan involves proposed improvements to a 1.3-mile stretch underneath the interstate. The plan is designed to revitalize a “gateway” area of the city, and to create “a destination for those who seek a unique and culturally diverse venue for recreation or relaxation.”
Shell is hopeful that his skatepark proposal will become a prominent feature within the greenway. In addition to providing a place for skateboarders, he envisions it as helping to transform an area of the city.
“Basically, it takes a blighted area underneath the interstate and turns it into an area we can really be proud of,” Shell said.
The sport of skateboarding has seen tremendous growth over the last couple of decades, and many other municipalities — big and small — have developed public skateparks over the years. Shell points to the parks back in Orlando, or up in Atlanta, or in Miami or even Mobile.
“It’s pretty much mainstream,” Shell said. “In 2020, it’s going to be an Olympic sport.”
Pensacola’s park would be on par with the best. Spohn Ranch, a company out of California that designs and builds skateparks — “they built the ramp Tony Hawk did the original 900 on” — has provided conceptual designs free of cost, and has also offered to work on the project.
“We would like this to be a top-notch, destination, iconic venue where we can have professional contests,” Shell explained. “I think it’s totally feasible.”
Such ambitions come with a price. In this case, that price is estimated to be around $1.5 million. Shell is expecting to raise the money through a combination of grants, gifts, crowdsourcing and various events.
“The thing about this is we’re not asking the city for any money to build this,” Shell said. “Once it’s built, we just want to gift it to the city.”
That is essentially what Shell will be asking the city council to do: approve and accept a gift on city property. But the gift, too, comes with a price.
Once the skatepark and its associated amenities are completed, the city would be taking on the responsibility of maintaining the park. That upkeep, which would include landscaping, labor, cleaning and general maintenance, is projected to carry an annual cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
The Pensacola City Council will be discussing the skatepark proposal during its agenda review session Monday (Oct. 10). Council members will make a decision on the matter later in the week when they meet for their regular session Thursday (Oct. 13), at 5:30 p.m. at Pensacola City Hall.
The Following are design renderings from Spohn Ranch.
For more information about the skatepark plans, visit Upward Intuition’s website.