When Black Pearl Skate Park opened in 2005, it seemed like a sure fire winner.
It was the second largest skate park in the world. The economy was booming. It had a great location and demand was high for activities for the whole family, especially in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.
But in spite of all the fan fare, the skate park was closed down and the gates locked in December 2007 according to parent Steve Myers and skateboarders JR Cameron and Jordan Downey. Brick House owner next to the skate park, Harry Lalli, confirmed the skate park was shut down because of financial and operational problems.
Although skate park developer-owner Mike Bell confirmed the Park’s retail board shop was closed, he denied the skate park was closed in December 2007 and reluctant to say there were any problems with the park in a telephone interview as stated by skateboarders and Lalli.
However, in an email statement the next day, Bell said, “The Black Pearl Skate Park was left open for the public to use. After Christmas in early January the Black Pearl Skate park was then closed temporary for operational restructuring, insurance restructuring, repair of fencing and to reintroduce park rules.”
But according to skateboarders, after the gates were locked, kids started hopping the fence to skate in the park for free. Then part of the fence went missing.
There were concerns that if a kid had an accident and needed medical attention, paramedics may not be able to get into the park, says Cameron. So the locks were taken off the gates.
Then it was a free for all. Hundreds of kids descended on the Black Pearl to skate on the weekends and after school.
They were all kinds of kids. Athletic and non-athletic; middle-class and poor; book smart and street wise; hip hoppers and pop music.
“Skate boarding became cool again,” says Cameron.
But a new problem arose: many kids were running around Grand Harbour unsupervised, causing a bit of havoc for some of the businesses located in the complex says Lalli and Myers.
Lalli says he made a deal with Bell to take over the managerial and financial operations of Black Pearl. Lalli then brought on Cameron, who took a pay cut to follow a dream, to coach kids and raise the level of skateboarding in the Cayman Islands.
After being closed for three months, the skate park was re-opened in March 2008, says Lalli.
Since then it has operated on a shoestring budget, but it has steadily grown, attracting hundreds of local kids to the sport, says Cameron.
“In most sports you need to be good to participate, but in skateboarding you just need a skateboard to be a skater,” says Cameron.
Part of the power of skateboarding is it allows kids at all skill levels to start in the sport and quickly excel. And it fulfils an innate sense of creativity in many kids such as using ramps, rails, ledges, stairs and doing tricks on the fly, explains Neuville Cover, a 17-year-old street skater and a member of the Black Pearl Skate Team.
“I will see a new trick on YouTube and I will say – Wow – this looks really fun,” says Neuville. ”Then I will go out and learn it.”
On weekends, Neuville is just one of many kids who will skate at the park for six or more hours a day. There are even kids at the park for 10 hours a day. There are thousands of tricks out there so there is always more to learn.
“The sun is so hot, but you don’t want to come off your board,” says Neuville.
No one would mistake 8-year-old Sean Myer’s board. In big white letters his board is marked “Dr Sean”. He doesn’t give it a second thought that he competes with kids twice his age in the skateboarding competitions at Black Pearl. He came in second at the last competition, using a giant concrete bowl to showcase his trick.
Then Sean demonstrated one of his specialty tricks – pivoting his skateboard off a ledge into a 12 ft vertical ramp, which would make any non-skater’s stomach lurch, and roll down it like it was a gentle slope.
Skateboarder Jordan Downey, 17, says the sport allows kids to just hang out with friends, learn new tricks and socialise in a non-competitive way.
“There are no rules in skateboarding,” says Jordan. “Basketball, baseball, football – they have too many rules. With skating, it’s all you. You don’t have to rely on anyone else.”
The domino effect
Even with its up and downs, Black Pearl is still the second largest skate park in the world. And that attracts some of the biggest names in the professional skating world, says Cameron.
When the Black Pearl hosted its first skateboarding camp last summer in partnership with the Tourism Department, professional skaters such as Shaun White, Brian Sumner, Josh Harmony and Rune Glifberg came down to coach the kids.
The kids loved it. Kids from other countries spend their lives at the skate park trying to get to competition level, explains Cameron.
“In the last two years, many of our kids have reached the competitive level, because the Black Pearl is a world class facility and because of the calibre of athletes who are visiting the park and teaching our kids,” says Cameron.
Next year, Cameron plans to take the summer camp up a few notches. By harnessing the star appeal of professional skaters coaching the 11-week camp, it should get American kids signing up to participate. And if the American kids come to the Skate Cayman camp, so will their parents. That translates to more overnight tourism during the slow summer months, says Cameron.
“Kids can skate with the pros while their parents sit on the beach,” says Cameron.
Whether it is skate camp or another event, having pro skaters coming to the Black Pearl generates international media coverage.
So far this year, 10 international film projects have come to Black Pearl including MTV and the Uprising, a Christian reality TV show. And that is with little or no marketing. Not only do film crews spend money on condos, rental cars and restaurants, but cable shows can also generate enormous exposure for the Cayman Islands as a tourist destination, says Cameron.
Currently, Cameron is working with some schools to incorporate the skate park as part of its physical education programme. With more than 30 per cent of children obese or at risk for obesity, skateboarding could be a realistic option to help many kids get active and lose weight in the process.
Talk to any kid or parent at the Black Pearl and they all credit Cameron for making Black Pearl an integral part of the community. Many kids with troubles at home or school have found a second home at the Black Pearl.
There is an unofficial partnership with skateboarding parents like Myers, who is also a police officer, to be a sounding board for the kids. Skateboarding at the park has helped kids stay out of trouble. And if they have gotten into a bit of trouble, it has helped many kids to get back on track.
Neuville readily calls Cameron his skateboarding dad, who does not hold back on giving the young man advice on his personal life as well as skateboarding.
But even with the skate park on the rise, there is no getting around the fact that Cameron’s seven-year-term limit has come up. And Cameron’s application for key employee status has been denied. And while Lalli is trying to get Cameron’s key employee status reconsidered, it doesn’t look good. As the paper is going to press, Cameron is getting ready to leave the island.
Without Cameron, this leaves a big question mark on the skate park’s future. And this settles over the Black Pearl like a dark cloud.
For one thing, the Black Pearl operates on a tight budget, with the bulk of its revenue coming from local kids. Plans to generate more revenue through tourism are still in the works. To stay solvent, the park requires a person who can build relationships with the professional skateboarding world as well as local kids. Finding someone else willing and capable of doing it on a shoestring budget could be impossible says Lalli and Myers.
“It is going to be very difficult for anyone to establish the same connection with the kids at the park,” says Myers. “If JR is not around, I don’t know who could run the park.”
Bell says it is important for children to have a role model like Cameron.
“Respect is something earned not given. You can rollover and replace employees of a business, but you cannot simply take away a child’s mentor and replace he or she with a new one,” said Bell by email.
The Olympic hope
Skateboarding will probably eventually qualify as an Olympic sport . If that happens, there are several Caymanian kids coming up in the ranks that could qualify. Caymanians competing at the Olympic level in skateboarding would bring more attention to the country and attract sponsorships to upgrade to the Black Pearl facilities for training, says Cameron.
For many kids at the park, the X Games, the most prestigious competition for extreme sports is also within reach, says Myers.
“If we have kids at the park competing at the international level then it could put Cayman on the map,” says Myers.
Earlier this month 35 kids participated in two skateboarding competitions at the park.
Each kid got two minutes to demonstrate their stuff: fancy turns, sliding down rails, rolling up quarter pipes, jumping curbs and other tricks.
“Competition is not just about winning,” says Cameron during the break. “It is about testing our skills and competing with our peers. But it’s also about being able to perform in front of a crowd and talk to people. This is a huge life skill, whether it is skateboarding or school or anything. It is not just about skateboarding; it’s about life.”
Neuville started his routine with gusto. Landing from a jump, there was sudden loud clack. Shaking his head, Neuville picked up the broken pieces of his board and started walking off the lane.
Then someone pushed a board out to him. He got on the board and skated out his remaining time.
When he was done, the crowd of kids clapped and shouted for Neuville. And then it was the next kid’s turn.