- Associated Press - Sunday, January 7, 2018

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Jimmy Collins is 31 now.

It’s been a while since the former skater hopped on a board, and he’s gotten rid of all the graphic t-shirts from his youth.

All but one.

“I always kept the Project Wilmington Skate shirt in hopes that when the park actually opens I can wear it,” said Collins, who was 16 when he was part of a group of skateboarders advocating for a park the early 2000s.

“But it never happened.”

Almost 20 years later, the teens who were excited about the park back then are in their late 20s and 30s, old enough to have their own children. City officials, who held optimistic photo ops and raised thousands of private and public dollars since 2001, never delivered.

The site under I-95 off Maryland Avenue last month was strewn with garbage. A toilet sat in the grass surrounded by debris and the underpass was tattooed with graffiti.

Project advocates were hopeful in late 2016 that the park was finally approaching the construction phase. But a lease agreement with the state department of transportation, which owns the land, was never signed by former Mayor Dennis P. Williams, DelDOT said.

Now, DelDOT says they need the land to conduct a three-year viaduct rehabilitation project on the property, which would delay the skate park construction by at least that many years.

There’s still the issue of funding the $1.8 million design. The General Assembly members earmarked $600,000, and the city has a few thousand dollars allocated to the project, but the total is nowhere near the estimated cost.

Years of hopeful meetings and over $200,000 in taxpayer-funded designs later, the Wilmington skate park effort is stagnant again.

“It’s been a long time,” said Anthony Santoro, a former skateboarder who advocated for the project for years. “It’s just not happening… It’s never going to move.”

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, who has been in office for almost a year, said he supports the project but admits he hasn’t done anything to move it forward.

“This has not been something we’ve been spending every day talking about,” he said. “It’s kind of been dormant for quite some time. Except for an occasional conversation about it over the past year, it’s not something we’ve spent a lot of time on.”

Officials have not explored alternative locations, fundraising options or how to lower costs to meet the money currently on hand. There is no stated timeline. Unlike other capital projects, the city’s parks and recreation department has no one dedicated to working on skate park plans.

“It’s very disheartening,” said Santoro, who recently resigned as president of the Wilmington Skate Project as a result of his frustration. “We all pretty much have given up.”

City Parks Director Kevin Kelley has been talking about building a skate park in the city since 1998, News Journal archives show.

The Wilmington native, who would later run twice for mayor, said he wanted to create opportunities for youth.

“We want to help kids - keep them off the street,” then-City Councilman Kelley told The News Journal in 2001.

That year, he proposed a skating facility on a 30,000-square-foot plot of land near Frawley Stadium. Admission would be free.

For Collins and his friends, the park would mean not having to drive to Philadelphia or get in trouble for trespassing in areas where skateboarding wasn’t allowed.

“We wanted something local because every big city had their skatepark,” the north Wilmington resident said. “We were excited.”

Kelley estimated it would cost $250,000, to be paid for with city and state dollars and public and private donations, archives show. The park would be accessible from the stadium and would connect the Riverfront and the Browntown neighborhood in Kelley’s then-district.

Kelley said recently that he underestimated the cost.

At the time, the city council had granted $35,000, the News Journal reported. Kelley expressed optimism he could get the rest of the money from the state and donations. The Wilmington Skate Project was established as a nonprofit to do private fundraising.

But the project ran into trouble. The site had land ownership conflicts, and soil testing indicated possible contamination, archives show.

In August 2003, Kelley announced a new location at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Linden Street and said he believed it was close to becoming a reality. He said the site near Frawley would take too much time to develop.

“We’ll keep hammering away,” Kelley said at the time. “I’ve got an obligation to these kids.”

That year, the project received part of a $1.5 million grant from the state department of parks and recreation in 2003, archives show. Michael Globetti, a spokesman for the division’s department of natural resources and environmental control, did not respond to repeated questions about the exact amount or use of that money.

In 2004, the project seemed to gain steam. Councilman Kelley allocated $250,000 from the city’s capital budget to the skate park, and the city signed a five-year airspace agreement with DelDOT.

But apparently, the money wasn’t enough.

“Although the site was secured, the project did not have enough funding to proceed at that time, and the lease with DelDOT expired,” the city said in planning department memo.

After that, things were quiet for a while. In 2011, the Wilmington Skate Project lost its nonprofit status after three consecutive years of failing to file tax paperwork.

“We went through many years when we didn’t have support from the mayor’s office,” said Ben Jones, acting president of the Wilmington Skate Project.

In 2012, then-Mayor Dennis P. Williams “re-engaged DelDOT in conversation” about the park and hired a firm to redesign it. The new blueprints showed a state-of-the-art park with inclines, rails and obstacles for skaters and a pedestrian walkway. It would cost $1.8 million.

“It would be unbelievable,” said Santoro, who hoped it would be a destination for local youth and skaters around the region.

The city asked the Riverfront Development Corporation to act as a project manager to “be the conduit of funding and spearhead the design work,” said Executive Director Megan McGlinchey.

The Williams administration held a kick-off event to celebrate the project with a photo op for the mayor and local officials.

“There was a huge event, and then it was like crickets,” McGlinchey said. “I always got the sense that once the design was done and it was priced, they had no ability to fund it.”

Only $47,000 of Kelley’s $250,000 is left over today, according to the mayor’s office. The News Journal filed public records requests in mid and late December for documents showing all skate park project income and expenditures but has not yet received a response

Williams appeared to support the project throughout his four-year term, listing it as an accomplishment in his state of the city address in March 2016.

“I think we’re doing all right with that,” he said. “I really do.”

After a public meeting was held last year to affirm public support for the project, a $1, 25-year lease agreement was prepared and approved by Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan on Nov. 29, 2016.

But DelDOT said Williams never signed it. A month later, he left office.

According to longtime Williams ally Ed Osborne, Williams never saw the agreement.

“He would’ve signed it,” Osborne said. “He wanted it. He realizes they need something like that in the city for the kids.”

Williams could not be reached for comment.

Jones with the Wilmington Skate Project said he is in regular contact with Kelley about the project. It is his understanding it’s still in the works.

“I’m working as best I can with the city in good faith, and I expect the same in return,” he said. “Wilmington needs it. These kids need something to do. They need positive influences.”

But Kelley talks about the project in the past tense.

“I was the guy trying to lead it, and it didn’t happen,” he said. “You can put it on me. I’m not going duck from it.”

And Purzycki said he’s “agnostic” about the skate park.

According to Santoro, who said he presented skate park plans multiple times to the Riverfront Development Corporation while Purzycki was at its helm, the mayor was never a fan of the skate park.

Mike Purzycki just didn’t buy into the idea,” he said. “It’s exactly why it’s not being built now, in my opinion… He’s never going to do this project. Never going to happen.”

For now, the only immediate plans for the site under I-95 are as a staging area for an upcoming viaduct project.

“We will make it available to the city again if they have a desire to use it for the skate park once the project is completed,” said DelDOT spokesman CR McLeod.

Maybe the park will be built by the time Collins‘ future children are teenagers, he joked, although at this point he questions how many kids are still interested in the sport.

“I’m not sure how popular skateboarding is these days,” he said. “I know it had a high point in the early 2000s.”

Collins isn’t holding his breath, but he’ll hang on to his Project Wilmington Skate t-shirt.

“If it was built, would I go? Absolutely.”

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com

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