BRATTLEBORO — A chance to help change the structure and future of the indoor skatepark at the Boys & Girls Club on Flat Street will be the topic of discussion on Friday, April 1 at the Club.
“The Club is seeking community input and involvement in stewarding the skatepark into the future,” says Executive Director Michelle Simpson. “Due to certain Boys & Girls Club of America restrictions, we are not able to open the skatepark up to the public, making this an under-optimized community resource.”
“We are looking to our community in hopes that someone wants to get involved in this unique business opportunity,” she continues. “Otherwise, we will need to re-strategize and seek other ways to rent and activate the space.”
“I know I would personally be sad to lose the skatepark,” Simpson says.
The Club is looking for community input about the space and hopes to keep the park as a community asset rather than closing it and renting the space for another use.
A tour of the skatepark starts at 6 p.m., with a panel discussion set from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Could Brattleboro become a skatepark destination?
Currently the skatepark portion of the 17 Flat St. building is “somewhat underused,” Simpson says, because the Boys & Girls Club of America has “very strict safety guidelines for clubs, and no one over the age of 18 can be in the building who hasn't had a background check.”
“So, the skatepark right now is only available to Club members. That over-18 background check requirement limits its availability to the community,” she says, adding one check for even a volunteer costs $60.
As a result, the Club is looking at ways to partner with another entity to open the indoor skatepark and other underused spaces in the building to the public.
The Club has already had conversations with the larger skateboarding community. The hope is to continue to work on a design to separate that side of the building, adding a separate entrance.
One possibility: finding a person, a collective, or a corporate sponsor to run the park as a nonprofit or a business, allowing it to open to the community once it is uncoupled from the Club.
In Simpson's and others' view, with the new, outdoor Perseverance Skatepark - which opened at Living Memorial Park in 2020 after a long and complicated journey - it would be great if the community could also access the Club's indoor park and broaden the regional offering to make Brattleboro a skateboarding destination, perhaps with a snowboarding connection crossover.
“Especially with the horrible weather in New England, this could be the indoor alternative when the weather isn't great,” Simpson says, noting there is no financial pressure on the Club to do anything with the park side of the building. Rather, she says, it could be “an opportunity for everyone.”
“The Boys & Girls Club itself doesn't have the bandwidth to see the skatepark reach its full potential,” says Lisa Ford, chair of its board of directors. “Therefore, my hope is we find a skatepark visionary who has the community spirit to launch this business for skate enthusiasts in the greater Brattleboro area.”
The space at 17 Flat St. has a diverse history, having been a former parking garage, nightclub, and teen center.
Not unlike its complexion in the beginning, the skatepark portion of the building retains a cement-and-steel structure in part with cement floors and ramps.
“The building and its history has a lot of nostalgia for the community, and there's a lot of good will for the Club and its interactions over the years,” says Simpson.
Dennis Smith, now the owner of The Marina, a restaurant on Putney Road, and his sister, Linda Dierks, started the Flat Street Nightclub here, buying the 9,930-square-foot building in 1977 and running it until 1986.
“It was an air-raid shelter and parking garage when we bought it,” Smith says. “The entire thing was nothing but a concrete-and-brick garage. We took about half and ran a firewall right down the middle and left the left-hand side as storage for the nightclub.”
The nightclub hosted a teen disco one night a week, and during the remainder of the week, it was a disco and offered live entertainment.
Known as the largest club in Vermont and one of the largest at the time in New England, Smith says “at least 40, 50 good-sized main acts” performed here, ranging from rocker George Thorogood to French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
The elder George H. W. Bush, who as vice president to Ronald Reagan made a campaign stop in Brattleboro in 1984, was among those who held political rallies here.
“They go on forever,” says Smith of the big-name acts and politicos who came to the club.
Historical records say a fashion show took place at the club and, at one point, attractions included a mechanical bull and mud wrestling event.
Smith and Dierks sold the club to folks from Boston who ran it for a year or so. It was sold again in 1988 and then it was sold in 1990, with the Greater Brattleboro Area Teen Community Center finding a home in the space. In 1999, the teen center affiliated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
“It went from teen disco to teen center - and that was a good thing from our point of view,” says Smith with a laugh.
He's all for improving the skatepark and infusing it with new life.
“I think it's great,” Smith says. “Everything they've done has been great. They'll find someone and keep moving forward. Every improvement they make has been great.”
“All Brattleboro needs next is a climbing wall and Frisbee golf,” he says.
Skateboard community keen to keep the park
There is one smaller indoor skatepark in town, BUI (Brattleboro Underground Indoor) skatepark, at 28 Williams St.
Owner Rocky Markham, 33, has had the place for six years and is all for keeping the Boys & Girls Club park, too.
“We love it there,” he says. “It was a shame when we all got older and couldn't skate there, but it's definitely a great space for the kids and the community to grow.”
He's not yet sure the level of his interest, but he's clearly supportive.
“I'd have to plan everything out and see what the parameters for operation are, but I'm totally interested if something could be figured out,” Markham says.
For him, the size and versatility at the Club's skatepark are big pluses.
Both allow encompassing more types of skaters, he says, from those who skate “transition” (skate-style swimming pools and quarter-pipes), to street skating (urban-style ledges, rails, stair sets). The fact that there are two levels is also a bonus, but he agrees work needs to be done.
“It hasn't had a major facelift for a while, and it could use a change for better flow and a smooth course for variety and to keep everyone safe,” Markham says.
Scott Dixon, owner of Tailblock Concrete LLC and an avid skateboarder, is earnestly enthusiastic about seeing the indoor park at the Club revitalized.
The 34-year-old has been skateboarding for 22 years. His company specializes in residential decorative concrete and skatepark construction, one of only three in New England. He has helped with skatepark builds in eight states and four countries and is currently making improvements to BUI.
“Brattleboro has incredible potential for a skateboarding destination in New England, and I'd love to do whatever I can to help see that potential realized,” says Dixon, one of the skaters who helped make Perseverance Park a reality.
“I've been skating the Boys & Girls Club since I moved here when I was 20 - 14 years ago,” he says. “I was a registered volunteer and was so grateful they would let me skate. At the time, it was the only place in the area to skate. It was such a huge asset.”
Dixon eventually built his own skatepark at his former house in Hinsdale, N.H. and stopped going to the Club as frequently. He says he still gets there a few times a year.
“I think if the skatepark is ever going to be successful, changes to the design are completely necessary,” he says. “Not only are some of the ramps completely deteriorated from being close to 20 years old, it's an outdated design.”
“The business model of an indoor skatepark is notoriously difficult to sustain, so it's crucial to have a unique, accessible, and multifunctional layout in order to draw people from surrounding areas,” Dixon points out.
While Dixon says he doesn't “have the resources to undertake a venture like that,” he has been talking with Simpson for almost two years “about offering them a heavily discounted rate to design and build some new features in the park.”
Dixon says the business model he's proposing is to make changes and add features slowly, perhaps getting high school students who are in the trades involved, and then adding more features as money comes in.
“I think it's going to take a special kind of person who has a lot of money or a nonprofit that understands how the grant system works,” he says of a potential fix.
“Skateboarding has changed my life for the better,” says the former nurse. “It's taken me all over the world on so many adventures. It's sacred to me. It is its own culture and community.”
“It's the most important thing that's happened to me through all my successes, and I want to do all I can to help the community and the kids and enhance the skateboarding scene here,” Dixon adds.
Dixon finds it super important to have skating space where there can be intergenerational use.
“The kids get to learn from older people and older people get to learn, too, and see changes in the world through a younger person's eyes. It's like the fountain of youth,” he says with a laugh.
“Brattleboro is my home and I have spent my entire adult life doing everything I can to bolster and enhance the skateboarding scene here. It's incredible how large the skate scene is here compared to the overall size of the town,” he says.
All that's missing, he says, is “that one indoor space for winter.”
“If we had an indoor skatepark on top of all the other skate infrastructure in this town, I really believe Brattleboro would become a major destination spot for not just New England, but also for most of the East Coast.”