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Tony Hawk: Why communities need skateparks

In his book "How Did I Get Here?" the star skateboarder and entrepreneur writes about turning his passion into a business worth billions of dollars. In this excerpt, he shares what inspired him to start his charity.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his book “How Did I Get Here?” star skateboarder and entrepreneur Tony Hawk writes about turning his passion into a business worth billions of dollars. In this excerpt, he shares what inspired him to start his charity, The Tony Hawk Foundation.  

In 2001, I got invited to do a demo at the grand opening of a public skatepark near Chicago. The community that invited me was affluent — they could afford to fly in a celebrity skater from California as part of their opening-day fanfare. I arrived the day before the big event, and they asked if I wanted to ride the park that afternoon, alone. I jumped at the chance, figuring I’d give it a test run before I skated the place in front of a crowd.

The park, unfortunately, was a joke — a nonsensical arrangement of poorly constructed obstacles. There was no sense of flow: A set of stairs abutted a bank, so if you ollied down the stairs, you’d run into the bank, and if you rode down the bank, you’d slam into the stairs. The ledges were six inches high instead of the standard two feet. And there was a bizarre, narrow, winding sidewalk with tiny unrideable berms on either side. It felt like the park had been designed by someone who knew nothing about skateboarding, and had been built by whatever sidewalk contractor happened to make the lowest bid.

I rolled around the place for a while, blowing easy tricks, trying to find a zone where I could actually do some real skating. After a while, I just gave up.

Some of the parks-and-recreation officials approached and asked me how I liked their new facility. I didn’t to want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also didn’t want to lie. I said, “Honestly? It’s pretty bad.”

And they said: “You know what? That’s what all the local kids have been saying. But we told them, ‘Just wait until Tony Hawk gets here. He’ll show you how to ride it.’”

Because of my failed test flight, they decided to bring in a vert ramp to make sure I’d have something to skate for the big demo the next day. After I was finished, they carted away the ramp and gave the kids their crappy skatepark.

Back home, as I started telling this story to friends, it occurred to me that I was in a position to help stop such foolishness from recurring — to fix the ongoing disconnect between the people in positions to build public skateparks and the kids who ride them.

Young kids were buying skateboards like never before; there were more than 12 million skateboarders in the United States in 2001, but only about 2,000 skateparks. And a lot of those parks were bad — as I’d just learned firsthand outside Chicago.

I also knew that many communities were resistant to building any kind of skatepark. The impoverished ones couldn’t afford it. Others were worried about liability. And some feared a skatepark would attract too many punks.

But here’s the thing: Kids are going to skate whether or not civic leaders create a place for them to do it. So they end up skating in spots that city officials or school administrators or local business owners have deemed off-limits. That means youngsters who’d never before been in serious trouble suddenly find themselves getting ticketed or arrested or suspended — simply because they want to pursue a sport that they’re passionate about.

I approached my family about the idea of starting a charity to help build public skateparks in low-income areas. Pat thought it was a great idea. My brother Steve agreed to do the paperwork to get it started, write the grant application, and then work part-time as executive director until it got off the ground. My name was more recognizable than ever at that point, so we decided to call it the Tony Hawk Foundation.

Shortly after we became an official nonprofit, I got invited to be on a celebrity edition of ABC’s hit game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? With an assist from Steve as my “phone a friend” lifeline (he’s not that smart, just good at Googling), I won $125,000 for the foundation. Thanks, Regis. (A few years later, Fox TV asked me to be a contestant on its series Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, also for charity. That time I got invaluable help from one of the show’s “classmates,” an 11-year-old named Nathan, and won $175,000. I was so impressed by Nathan that, in front of the cameras, I promised him we’d help finance a skatepark in his hometown. The park cost about $500,000 total, and we kicked in $75,000. Two years later, I attended the grand opening of the Nathan Lazarus Skatepark in Nederland, Colorado. I stood beside him as he cut the ribbon, then skated for a while in front of a few thousand people. That was a good day. (And it’s a good skatepark.)

To get the word out about the foundation, we issued some press releases, and I began to talk about it in interviews and on talk shows. Jaimie Muehlhausen, my company’s in-house graphic guru, teamed up with my old friend Ray Underhill to build a website (tonyhawkfoundation.org) so communities could fill out our grant application and read tips on how to develop a community skatepark.

The first year we donated to parks, we gave away over $350,000 to 105 projects, with grants ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. The applicants had to be legitimate nonprofits, and they had to be working toward creating a public skatepark in an underprivileged community.

At the time this book was written (summer 2010), the foundation has provided technical assistance to some 1,700 communities, and awarded more than $3 million in grants to more than 450 low-income communities in 49 states. (Time to step up, Connecticut.) About 350 of the parks that have received our money are now open, serving around three million skaters annually. Based on those numbers, we figure the foundation has helped to create more than 10 percent of the estimated 3,000 skateparks in the country.

Excerpted from “How Did I Get Here?” by Tony Hawk. Copyright (c) 2010. Reprinted with permission from Wiley.