Urban Terrain Parks Are a Great Idea. What’s Holding Them Back?
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding. Subscribe here.
As major resorts continue prioritizing elite clientele with astronomical lift ticket prices and slopeside real-estate development, demand for affordable urban terrain parks is bubbling as operators scramble to figure out the execution. But how can they learn from a few failures to launch, channeling the stoke of a couple hardcore parks rats into an affordable mountain outpost for urban communities?
While a lucky few of us get to ride 50-plus days a year, it’s easy to forget that snowboarding is an incredible privilege that most of the world doesn’t have. Not everyone lives near a mountain, the equipment is a steep investment, and for many families, lift ticket and lodging prices can wipe out a whole paycheck before they even think about sniffing out group lessons.
Thankfully, snowboarding is an industry that bleeds passion into every corner of the country that sees 32-degree temperatures. The movement to “bring the mountain to your back yard” is gaining steam, though not without a few hiccups along the way.
“Municipalities want alternative and unique opportunities for their communities,” says Bob Holme, Winter Park’s Terrain Park Manager, who brought the rail park Ruby Hill to Denver city limits in 2007. A two-acre hike hill in an underserved Latino neighborhood, Ruby Hill sets up six to ten rails and stays open for five to seven weeks each winter. It’s run by 30 volunteers, admission is free, and local shop Christy Sports even hooks up a few days of free rentals for the kids. And they have visible, positive effects when the whole neighborhood shows up to enjoy them.
“You’ll see a Walmart special next to a 1,000 dollar setup. It’s awesome,” says Holme. Aside from being a more slippery playground, urban terrain parks have the potential to break down the biggest barriers of entry for snowboarders. According to SnowSports Industries America (SIA), only about 17 percent of first-time riders stick with it. It’s not hard to imagine someone dropping well over a hundred bucks for rentals and a pass, slamming their ass into the hill for several hours until they’re cold, wet, and sore, then having a six-hour car ride home to think about how much they never want to experience that again. But if a beginner gets to ride at least three times in a season, approximately 80 percent of them will catch the snowboard bug and be stoked to get out there again the following season.
A cheap, easy, close facility gives the latter scenario way more potential, which can only help the sport continue to thrive. But not every place is as plugged in to the snow sports scene as the city of Denver, the actual landowner of Winter Park and, in turn, Ruby Hill. Lansing, Michigan’s Hawk Island urban snowboard park was meant to be a model for bringing cheap, accessible snowboarding to cities across the country, but it shut down this year after two full seasons of struggling to get it together. Originally a grassroots operation pitched by locals and approved by Ingham County, the park opened for two days in 2011, then the county contracted Gateway Parks to bring the dream to life in 2012 and 2013.
Gateway has been run by 1999 US National Boardercross Champion Ryan Neptune and a few other snow sports entrepreneurs who have built terrain parks for several World Cup and Olympic events. “The events and programs we plan to have intend to make snowboarding more accessible, hence the name ‘Gateway’,” says Krush Kulesza, Global Event Manager for Mervin, who partnered with Gateway Parks to promote the flagship facility and even named two Gnu and Lib Tech snowboards after Gateway, which come with a free season pass to their parks. “So much stuff in snowboarding is so rad,” says Kulesza. “The X Games and Olympics and Brain Farm movies are pushing the boundaries so far that it makes snowboarding un-relatable to people who want to be able to picture themselves doing it. They need an achievable entry point.”
Much to snowboarding’s chagrin, several people involved speculate that Gateway was spread so thin with too many other projects that they failed to give Hawk Island the attention and infrastructure it needed. Gateway’s entire revenue plan was contingent on the success of another park in Boise’s Eagle Sports Complex, which fell through for a number of political reasons, squashing the funds to support Hawk Island. “There was nobody in charge of marketing at Hawk Island. The corporate structure didn’t exist yet,” says Lansing local Jeff Deehan, who was instrumental in pitching the grassroots snow park idea to Ingham County, but never actually worked for Gateway. “We also had no revenue to do any marketing because of a late start to our  season caused by broken snowmaking equipment.” Between Gateway and Ingham County, it’s debatable who was responsible for fixing that.
After catching some fishy vibes from his supervisors, 22-year-old Commercial Tourism major Tyler May—the lead digger who’d been at Hawk Island from Day One—did some extracurricular digging through the public minutes of a recent Parks Commission meeting. To his surprise, the county had terminated their agreement with Gateway for a list of reasons including “failure to provide a future marketing plan” and “failure to sell enough passes”.
There was no shortage of finger pointing and hindsight criticism as the local kids who worked so hard to make Hawk Island happen learned through the grapevine that they were losing their jobs. “Kids five miles away never even heard of it,” says digger Joey Leppien, noting that the local outreach on Gateway’s marketing behalf was completely invisible. “There’re 40,000 kids at Michigan State University alone. Those kids definitely have the money and are not going to hesitate to spend 10 bucks to snowboard all day.”
“We didn’t meet the initial expectations that people had,” says Kulesza, but to put their situation into context, he notes the rarity of sanctioned city skate parks until only a few years ago, when a couple towns figured out how to get them set up through local governments. Once that pioneering stage saw success, the process was streamlined for everyone who came later. “With each park we build, the setup and dealing with all the municipalities is only going to get easier,” Kulesza adds, and he’s likely right.
But once a skate park is built, there’s hardly any upkeep required beyond the occasional sweep with a leaf blower. Snow parks need ongoing maintenance and the knowledge of a dedicated staff to pull it off.
“The guys digging at Hawk Island were a great core group of dudes who gave a shit,” says Holme, who was initially involved in the operation. “But the areas where the municipality had control over things made it really hard to operate in a clean way.”
Tyler May recalls one day when the towrope cable popped off the bullwheel and needed a quick adjustment: “This was an eight-minute fix, but the union workers had no interest in letting it interrupt their coffee break. That isn’t going to work. People aren’t going to wait around for an hour and a half. They’re going to leave and that’s bad customer service.”
Lansing may have had the stoke and some initiative, but they didn’t have the political infrastructure ready to accommodate a legitimate snow park operation, making it a less-than-ideal launch pad for this whole crucial movement for snowboarding. But once we start to see the success of more places like Ruby Hill or Eagle Island (Gateway’s smaller suburban Idaho park, separate from Eagle Sports Complex), places like Lansing, which aren’t known for their snowboarding scenes, will have a chance to get on the map, and with much better odds.
What Gateway—or any other potential operator—needs is a turnkey agreement where the city gives them the land and the access to water and infrastructure, then gets the hell out of the way. Let them do the job they know better than any overburdened municipal employee who really doesn’t care about snowboarding. Vehement love of the sport is what’s driven snowboarding this far and remains crucial to future prosperity.
Along with passionate locals like Joey Leppien and Tyler May, urban snowboarding needs experienced visionaries like Bob Holme, the support of die-hard promoters like Kulesza and Mervin, and the world-class experience of operators like Gateway Parks.
As bummed as everyone is about Hawk Island’s failure, all sides of the issue—including TransWorld SNOWboarding—still believe in the dream and have high hopes for the next one, wherever it may be.
Kulesza: “Once everyone has defined what they need to bring to the table, we can figure out the best way to compliment each other… Last year we saw a lot of what this whole thing could be, and now that we know even more, it’s looking better every year.”
May: “Eighty-percent of the reason I stuck it out is because I really do believe in the idea of what they’re doing. I’ve wanted to build a terrain park since I was six years old, hitting jumps in my back yard. It’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard and the potential was never even touched. With the right people involved, this can definitely be a success.”
Deehan: I watched 30 kids go from zero to hero in two years and become excellent snowboarders. This concept has the potential to catapult people who otherwise don’t have that opportunity and it could really change the face of snowboarding.
Holme: “I completely embrace this concept and I think it can make a big difference in the ski and snowboard industry. It just needs to be designed and executed flawlessly. The concept is there and the interest is there and a lot of things need to come together to make it work. When they do, it’s going to be great.”