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HomeVolume 26Risk-embracing skaters meet risk-averse council

Risk-embracing skaters meet risk-averse council

By KIERAN FINNANE

The least formalised, most spontaneous, risk-embracing and free-thinking of sports – skate boarding – had a close encounter in Alice Springs last night with everything that is its opposite: the risk-averse, slow-moving, tightly controlled Town Council.

This followed the abrupt closure of the town’s only skate park on Thursday last week.

The reason? The slippery surface of the park that has been causing falls and has been complained about for months (at least as far back as September last year, when it was discussed at a council meeting).

The issue had been raised again a fortnight ago, in an email from a member of the public to Councillor Jimmy Cocking and Director of Technical Services Scott Allen, which Cr Cocking brought up in the council meeting of 11 May.

No immediate action other than an investigation of claims.

Then on 20 May the closure, “effective immediately”, with no date set for when it would reopen.

“The park will remain closed until we feel any safety concerns have been adequately addressed,” said Mr Allen in a media release.

“The safety of our residents is paramount and this decision has been made with that in mind.”

Skating lobby arriving at the council meeting last night, including Spinifex Skateboards‘ Nicky Hayes, at left in the photo.

Cr Marli Banks last night asked whether it was a petition circulating in the community that had finally triggered the closure. Why hadn’t that response been made to the email of a fortnight ago?

CEO Robert Jennings took her question on notice.

Whatever the case, the petitioners turned up in number to last night’s meeting.

Their key question was, when will the park reopen?

It was answered with lots of reassurances of council’s good intentions but nothing firm.

Council wants to meet with them as a user group first, in a fortnight, said Mr Jennings. This delay is ostensibly because some of them are set to compete at a skating event in Perth in the coming week. (The Alice Springs News understands that three locals are heading for Perth. There would have been about 20 skaters and supporters in the public gallery last night.)

In the meantime, where will the kids go? asked Greg Barnes.

There’s nowhere else, unless they improvise a run for themselves. While they wait, he asked, could council leave in place the obstacles they set up in distant open drains? 

Not much chance of that given the insurance issues of the “world we live in”, said Mr Jennings.

He repeatedly assured the group that council wants to “get this right”, and that it needs to have their input both for the short-term solution and longer-term plans.

How about just getting the slippery paint off the surface? asked Mr Barnes.

Mr Jennings’s reply included reference to new standards set for the Olympic Games, where skating will be an event for the first time this year (if the games go ahead, given Japan’s fourth Covid wave).

Bare concrete used to be way to go, he said, sand blasting is one of the options, but the park is now 17 years old and its concrete surface is “not what it used to be”.

The reopening date seemed to recede into the distance with each word.

Skating lobby in the public gallery, Matt Boyd and Greg Barnes in the foreground.

But speakers from the floor were as much concerned with the bigger picture.

Tamara Burlando, with her skater son by her side, and representing a larger group pf parents not able to be there last night, spoke of the park as one of the most successful inclusive spaces in town. But she also hoped that future plans could decentralise, to have little skating places around town where kids could go anytime.

Different levels, different capacities need to be catered for, she said, and in the case of younger skaters, there needs to be a comfortable space for parents.

Carly Kennedy is the mother of a skater too but also a friend of many more and a representative of the youth sector (as long-term manager of an intensive youth support program). She spoke of the “beautiful” way that skaters share their knowledge and skills without the formal structure of a club.

The downside is that, when it comes to infrastructure development, their voices aren’t heard, she said.

Crs Matt Paterson and Jamie de Brenni had both spoken about the failed 2018 proposal, initiated by Cr Paterson, to have a second skating facility built at Newland Park in Gillen, but they suggested that the skaters had not been sufficiently supportive. Cr de Brenni went so far as to say only three skaters had turned up to the community consultation, “swamped” by the local resident turnout in opposition.

Ms Kennedy said she had been trying to recall whether council had reached out more broadly to the youth sector at that time.

To a comment by Mayor Damien Ryan that with any infrastructure plan “it all comes down to money”, Ms Kennedy pointed to the irony of a $24m commitment (by the NT Government) to building a new “youth prison” in Alice Springs in the same week as the skate park closed.

“When will our decisions-makers collaborate in best interest of children, youth and families and look towards a commitment in justice reinvestment?” she asked, hoping that everyone, but especially councillors, would understand what that term means. (Briefly, it’s about redirecting money spent on prisons towards human resources and physical infrastructure in areas most affected by high levels of incarceration.)

The lack of support for the Newland Park option from skaters was also contested by a woman whose name I caught as Billie Waha. She was one of those present for that consultation, but the skaters got drowned out by “louder, grumpier voices”.

The council killed off the proposal that very day. She was “disappointed that it got shut down so quickly”.

Rainer Chlanda* had also been there. He supported the proposal as a new skate park “anywhere would be a tremendous improvement”, but he argued last night, as he has previously, for it to be closer to the CBD, bringing the skaters into greater visibility in the community.

Cr Paterson had mentioned, as one of his preferred locations for a new facility, the area known as the Hospital Lawns, opposite the old Memo Club, which are apparently part of a road reserve owned by council.

Such a location would be “cool”, but also “ambitious, hard to achieve”, acknowledged Mr Chlanda, but meanwhile, he asked, whatever happened to the extension to the existing skate park. That had been part of council plans and consultations with skaters for as long as he could remember.

“Surely nobody in the community opposes more skate park at the skate park,” he said.

He also spoke of famous improvised skating venues, known to skaters as DIY skate parks, in other parts of the country and the world, such as in Preston, Melbourne, in Philadelphia, USA, in Scandinavia, suggesting council look into how those local authorities have dealt with the public liability issues.

“Have patience” was council’s overall message, one skaters have had to swallow many times over. They left their names and contacts on a sheet and rolled off into the night, while councillors formalised their business with this motion: “That Council Officers work with the Skate Park Users Working Group to expedite interim and long-term solutions that meet user expectations with urgency.”

Photo at top: Skater Rowley Hill flying in a 2014 comp (that he won) at the Alice Springs Skate Park. Photo by Phil Drummond.

*Rainer Chlanda is the reporter’s son. He has also written several persuasive pieces on youth-related matters, including skate-boarding, in these pages.

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