Expansion project to double skate park size underway
On Polson Skatepark’s Facebook page, a 6-year-old girl in a helmet, kneepads and a pink princess dress, plunges fearlessly into a 12-foot bowl on her skateboard, effortlessly skimming side to side.
It’s a scene that captures the whimsy and finesse of skateboard culture – a sport that induces people 6 to 60 to balance on a board with wheels beneath it and glide, grind, kick and jump over and around obstacles.
For Jesse Vargas, the sport is both his passion and teacher. “That’s what kept me out of trouble going through high school and taught me valuable life lessons like persistence, tenacity, and how to work hard for something,” he says. “It’s been a saving grace for me and most of my friends who skateboard as well.”
Vargas, a local real estate agent, and his partner, fifth-grade teacher Loni Havlovick, are the key forces in an effort to double the size of the Polson Skatepark, located just off 7th Ave. W., from 12,000 square feet to 24,000. Construction on the first 6,300-square-foot phase is slated to begin in mid-June by a team from Dreamland Skateparks, which built the existing park in 2006. The Oregon-based company specializes in design and construction of skateparks and has built facilities around the world, including nearly a dozen in Montana.
The total project will cost an estimated $265,000. The skatepark currently has $150,000 on hand – enough to go ahead with the first phase, which expands the park to the west.
To that end, any donations of cash, labor or materials – such as concrete, gravel or rebar, or even housing for the crew – will help the project move forward.
“We would love to do the whole thing this summer but we just don’t have the funds right now,” says Havlovick.
Since the skatepark was built 15 years ago, it’s attracted broad community support, with boarders from Missoula to Kalispell showing up to test their skills. When the weather is conducive, the local park draws an estimated 50 people a day, riding skateboards, BMX bikes and scooters, or just taking in the action. Even during the winter, a crew of BMX riders assigned themselves the task of keeping the bowl free of snow. And during the summer, a neighbor with a landscaping business mows the area around the park.
Donations toward the expansion have come from a variety of sources including $67,500 the Montana Skatepark Association, $20,000 from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, $20,000 from an anonymous donor, $15,000 from Rogue Brewing in Oregon, and $12,500 from Polson Rotary Club. The Lower Flathead Valley Community Foundation, Greater Polson Community Foundation, Whitefish Credit Union, Unity Bank and Glacier Bank have also chipped in, along with many small donors.
The park hosted its first-ever skate camp last summer. The five-day event kept 36 kids, ages 4-17, busy for two hours a day. The $50 fee included T-shirts, and since all the coaches and organizers were volunteers, the earnings went directly into the expansion fund.
“Our inbox was flooded with people asking ‘are you going to do more? Will you do another camp?’” says Havlovick. “I feel like parents in our community really see that kids need something other than organized sports that are often just too expensive.”
“Parents were also really excited for kids to join something again because it was right after the lockdown, it was an outdoor activity and it was easy to keep everyone socially distanced,” she adds.
Last summer’s Skate Jam, held in August, was also a big draw, raising $4,000 in a day from donations, a silent auction, raffles and swag sales. More than a hundred riders and bystanders attended, enjoying a range of contests, music by Hellcat Maggie and offerings from local food trucks.
Sean Fragua of Flathead Raft Company, an avid BMX rider and long-time park supporter, was the announcer. His company’s headquarters, on U.S. Highway 93, also serves as the local skateboard shop during the summer months. “That’s where everyone goes to get their gear because they don’t want to drive to Kalispell or Missoula,” says Vargas.
The park’s new addition is largely aimed at novice riders, with obstacles that are easier to master than the park’s more advanced features. “The idea is to start on small obstacles, and then progressively get bigger so you can progress at your own speed,” says Vargas.
Not only is it easier to learn the sport, it’s safer too. “Part of the danger factor is kids trying to do something that’s beyond their skill level,” he adds.
Advanced riders also benefit from honing tricks on smaller features before attempting “the big stuff. It really helps everybody and makes the park more well rounded in so many different ways.”
The skatepark is a fairly recent addition to Polson’s city park system. But skateboarding has a long and colorful history in the community, beginning in the 1990s when an informal group of skaters constructed a park on an old foundation at the corner of 7th St. E. and 7th Ave. E. – which quickly gained the nickname 7th and 7th.
When George Cutright, then in high school, won a contest in 1995 that brought a group of professional skateboarders to Polson during their nationwide summer tour, 7th and 7th was suddenly in the spotlight. To prepare for the visit, local skaters and their dads, equipped with power tools, built ramps for the exhibition.
The following summer, Cutright organized the first Polson Skate Jam. “The skate scene was so small back then that it felt like the perfect way to connect all of us, do some skateboarding, hang out, BBQ, and make new friends from across the state,” he recalls.
More and more homemade ramps were built and shuttled to the impromptu park summer after summer, with help from parents and local businesses who offered labor, materials and garages to build and house the proliferating assortment of wooden ramps.
Vargas grew up skateboarding in San Diego and felt right at home at 7th and 7th during summer visits to Polson. “I was always excited to come to Polson because I knew there was a really cool skatepark here, and a lot of people who rode it, built it and continued to build on to it,” he says.
But when he moved to Polson with his mom in 2003, the foundation for the park (located on Montana Rail Link property) had been demolished.
The young rider was heartbroken. “I was excited to move to Polson. I didn’t know anybody here but I thought at least I’d have a skatepark.”
For a few years, the disenfranchised skaters congregated on the steps in front of Linderman Gym. Former city parks manager Karen Sargent took notice, and launched an effort to “get kids off the school steps and into a park.”
Vargas credits Sargent as the driving force behind building a new park by the soccer and baseball fields. “She loved skateboarders, she loved the community, and she was a huge advocate for the skatepark scene,” he says. “She fought hard to get that park built.”
Now, it’s Vargas’s turn, with help from Havlovick and other community members, to expand the existing park.
Havlovick, who doesn’t skate (“I might break myself”) is keenly aware of the sport’s value, especially for kids whose families can’t afford club sports or organized school sports, or who are better suited to more individual pursuits. As a teacher, she also appreciates the welcoming community, especially for kids who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere else.
“It’s so cool to see how accepting those kids are,” she says. “Once in awhile you see a rough-looking crowd, but they’re so nice to each other. They clap and cheer and collaborate.”
“It’s almost like music,” Vargas adds. “You don’t even have to talk to each other – but if someone sees you working hard and accomplishing something, they just clap. That’s the same anywhere you go.”
For Vargas, expanding the Polson Skatepark is a way to honor the sport and the community, and continue a legacy that started nearly three decades ago at 7th and 7th.
“For me, picking up the torch is just giving back to something that’s been such a big thing for me in my life,” he says. He’s been at this fundraising effort since 2014, and the process has taught him other life skills, like how to apply for grants, write letters and make public presentations.
When, at 23, he decided to push the expansion, “I didn’t know anything about starting a project of this size,” he says. But, just like mastering a new trick in the park, “I was determined to learn. Keeping that tenacity and moving it forward has been a huge lesson for me.”
To help the park grow, email firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/polsonskatepark.