Skate park is first taste of City's parks pivot


Fresno’s mayoral and City Council District 6 candidates should circle May 5 on their calendars.


That’s the expected date for the dedication of the new skateboard park at Romain Playground in Central Fresno.

Politicians and wannabe politicians in attendance will get a lesson in the possibilities of communal effort and the leadership challenges facing City Hall.

For starters, things are hopping at Romain.

“That park is really turning around,” Parks Director Manuel Mollinedo told me.

I walked on Monday from City Hall to Romain to see for myself.

Much of the action is along the park’s west edge.

The spot for years was home to a skatepark popular with neighborhood youngsters and young adults. But the skatepark’s features were made of wood. Dedicated skateboarders and wood ramps – not a good long-term mix.

Positive change fell into place last year. The California Endowment gave a $340,000 grant to Fresno Building Healthy Communities. Building Healthy Communities joined forces with the Street League Skateboarding Foundation to design and build a concrete-and-steel skatepark. The City Council’s approval of everything was a mere formality.

The skatepark’s construction is now down to the finishing touches. Mollinedo says youngsters are using it on weekends. Parks officials look the other way – how are you going to hurt concrete and steel?

I passed part of late Monday afternoon with Kevin Sayathy, 21, and Chris Ovenphet, 24. Like me, they were watching workers at the skatepark. Unlike me, Sayathy and Ovenphet are skateboarders. Sayathy even had his skateboard with him (it was close to 5 p.m. – quitting time for most construction workers).

“This will bring more attention to the city,” Ovenphet said.

Ovenphet and Sayathy offered a word of advice to city officials: A skatepark this grand will soon require bleachers. Skateboarding as a spectator sport is exploding. Romain’s skatepark is sure to generate competitive events and the crowds that come with them.

There’s no room for bleachers at the course’s north end. That area is filled with the wooden forms of raised gardening beds – dozens of them. Romain Playground is getting its own community garden.

Mollinedo said volunteers, many of them connected to Building Healthy Communities, built the forms.

Building Healthy Communities (BHC) is a big reason why I walked to Romain.

BHC is a coalition of residents and community groups. Its name sums up its agenda. Its geographic focus is the older parts of Fresno, but it pays particular attention to what it calls “The Place.”

“The Place” is a rather narrow swath of Central Fresno stretching from Chandler Airport in the west to Peach Avenue in the east. Romain Playgrond is on the northern edge of “The Place.”

An estimated 85,000 people live in “The Place.” Many live at or below the poverty level.

BHC’s supporters include former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, a top official with The California Endowment. To say that BHC knows how to play the local political game is an understatement.

This was made abundantly clear late last spring during the city’s budget hearings. BHC held the Administration’s feet to the fire when it came to promises for more green space.

BHC and its supporters didn’t get all they wanted. But they vowed to return in 2016 with even more political firepower.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin last year soothed hurt feelings among community activists by promising to get the ball rolling on a full-blown Parks Master Plan.

So, where are we with that Master Plan? I’m not the only Fresnan with that question.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I get from people asking, ‘When is this going to start?’” Mollinedo says.

Mollinedo says city officials are reviewing proposals from two landscape architectural firms. The survivor will coordinate the many tasks that go into crafting such a plan.

No. 1 on City Hall’s list: Plenty of input from residents and community groups on what they want from a first class parks system.

Of course, such a system, one that features the rehabilitation of older parks and the addition of new green space, costs money. Grants would help, but Parks to a large degree is a general fund department. The general fund is healthier than it has been for years. But, as anyone who has followed Election 2016 knows all too well, candidates and voters also are keen on better public safety. Police and fire also are largely supported by the general fund.

Swearengin is termed out in January. The mayoral candidates in the June 7 primary are District 6 Council Member Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, businessman Richard Renteria, businessowner/community activist H. Spees and former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim.

Brand is termed out in January. Running to succeed him in District 6 are clinical psychologist/former District 6 Council Member Garry Bredefeld, business owner Holly Carter, entertainer/businessman Jeremy Pearce and student/fast food restaurant manager Carter Pope II.

The Mayor, of course, represents the entire city. District 6 is in Northeast Fresno. But no District 6 council member will effectively represent the district unless he/she can consistently get four votes on the council dais.

Mollinedo said he expects City Hall to announce the winning consultant for the Parks Master Plan in two to three weeks. In other words, right about Cinco de Mayo and the Romain Skate Park dedication.

This master plan will be a huge project. Mollinedo didn’t fight me when I suggested the finished product wouldn’t head to the City Council until early 2017 – when the new Mayor is settling in and the new District 6 council member is trying to woo political allies.

Fresno is a diverse place. But more of it looks like “The Place” than like District 6.

And, as I said, Building Healthy Communities knows how to do politics.

I’ll be at Romain Playground on May 5.

If they’re smart, those five mayoral candidates and those four District 6 candidates will ask me to save them seats.

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