- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Mike Berdis soon might leave his cozy concrete-covered corner of Columbus Park for the vast concrete maze of New York City.

The 3,000-square-foot skateboard park near West 16th and Poplar streets in Erie’s Little Italy neighborhood has been his safe haven since it opened nearly five years ago. He grew up riding his skateboard in the park. He also discovered the dream that helped him cope with the ups and downs of adolescence and find the motivation to succeed in school and life.

“I definitely want to become a professional skateboarder,” said Berdis, 18, an Erie native who has competed in and won amateur events in New York City and other major cities.

Most recently, he earned the $500 top prize in Nike Skateboarding’s Go Skateboarding Day competition June 21 in New York. He might move to New York or California as early as next spring to continue showcasing his skills and building connections in hopes of realizing his dream.

Until then, Berdis will spend most of his days with friends in Columbus Park. That’s where his skateboarding roots are.

“If I didn’t have skateboarding, I feel like I’d be lost,” Berdis said.

Berdis has aspired to reach great heights in skateboarding since he first stepped onto a board his mother, Kim, gave him as a gift for his fifth birthday. Back then, he honed his skills at Shebang Skatepark, an indoor facility on West 12th Street that closed in 2005. He immediately was hooked, Berdis said, because of “how I could progress, and I didn’t need anybody else to progress with me. … I could do it on my own. I could just grab my board and go out and skate.”

Erie’s downtown became his skate park as he grew older. Berdis skated with friends everywhere from parking lots at local businesses to Perry Square. He often was chased away, but Berdis kept going back to skate, even after adults threatened to call the police.

Berdis and other area skateboarders yearned for a place to call home.

“We tried a lot of other parks and nobody wanted us,” said Kim Berdis, Mike’s mother and founder of Skate Erie, a group that spearheaded the construction of Columbus Park’s skate park through donations and grant money that totaled about $200,000. The skate park opened in September 2009.

“People seem to be critical of things that they don’t understand or maybe they don’t know about,” said Marc Buccigrossi, 40, Skate Erie’s vice president and an avid skateboarder since the mid-1980s. Skateboarders are viewed as “outcasts or misfits,” he said, because skateboarding “goes against the grain of what’s considered to be normal by society’s standards.”

Buccigrossi noted that he has skated with federal judges, police officers, postal workers and schoolteachers at parks across the nation.

Meanwhile, Mike Berdis has proved a skateboarder’s looks can be deceiving. He has the long hair and laid-back demeanor of a traditional skateboarder. He was defiant at times as a teenager, Kim Berdis said, and wasn’t always interested in school. However, he graduated in June from Central Career & Technical School’s sales program. When he’s not competing, he works part time in the Millcreek Mall at Zumiez, a national chain of clothing stores geared toward skaters, snowboarders and surfers.

“The skate park (and) having skateboarding in his life have kept him grounded,” Kim Berdis said.

He has overcome challenges to build his skateboarding career, namely breaking the same arm four times.

Berdis, who competes with a protective brace on his arm, has enjoyed skateboarding success since 2008, when he earned a trip to California as a 12-year-old by winning a video contest featuring two minutes of his best tricks. He will skate in the Zumiez Best Foot Forward competition in Detroit in August after winning a qualifying event in Buffalo two months ago.

“His determination and drive are amazing,” Kim Berdis said.

Mike Berdis has watched proudly as Erie native Ontrell Thomas has developed his passion for skateboarding.

Thomas, who’s known as “Scooter” at the skate park, faces a fear of failure each time he rolls onto the course. Now he can skate on nearly every vertical ramp, often on the skateboard Berdis recently gave him. Thomas, 9, a skater for the past year, is part of a new generation of skateboarders who add to a group that reaches 30 to 40 people some days.

“It just makes me happy,” Thomas said of skateboarding at the park.

“We’re all on the same page,” said Erie’s Josh Feltenberger, 24, an in-line skater who enjoys interacting with his skateboarding friends at the park. “We all do it for the love of it.”

Residents in the Columbus Park neighborhood have “embraced us from the get-go,” Kim Berdis said. Mike Berdis said he has seen adults tell bicyclists to not ride in the skate park while skateboarders are there. Millcreek Township resident Scott Hinman, 51, recently watched older skateboarders work with his son, Matthew, 8, a newcomer to the sport.

“You don’t see any problems at all,” Scott Hinman said. Erie’s Keith San Felice, 15, a skater for two years, said, “It doesn’t matter what age you are as long as you like to skate.”

Kim Berdis said there have been no major incidents at the park. The skaters take pride in having a place to enjoy their passion for skateboarding because, she said, the skate park is “home for a lot of kids.”

In June 2013, Mike Berdis organized a Go Skateboarding Day competition that attracted about 50 skaters to the park. He wants to hold more events, especially for young skateboarders.

“We’re not hurting the community,” Mike Berdis said. “We’re giving back.”

Skateboarders have a new addition to the park this summer — a rounded vertical extension. San Felice brought an old desk from home last week to serve as a makeshift rail.

They appreciate anything new at the skate park, which was designed to be 10,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet in size but was scaled back when Skate Erie lost some anticipated funding.

“We had to do with what we had,” Buccigrossi said. “The park is partially done. We just need to allocate more money to continue the project.”

Kim Berdis, who was a stay-at-home mother when Skate Erie was formed but now has two jobs, doesn’t have time to pursue more funding.

“Marc and I are at the point where we need to try to pass the torch,” she said. “Unfortunately nobody has really jumped up to that yet.”

Her son might do that eventually.

“Michael has always said if he does make it big, he’s definitely going to come back and give back to Erie,” she said.





Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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