Jon Shell’s vision for a top-of-the-line skate park is something he’s been pursuing for more than a year.
And he wants to make sure early learning for Pensacola’s youngest citizens is built into it from the beginning.
“The idea is to create a destination, iconic park with activities and amenities for people of all ages, starting with the early learning demographic, ages 5 and under,” says Shell. “In our plan, around this top-notch skatepark that we’re going to have is a walking and jogging path I really think could be an incredible early learning loop, where kids can be with their families together.”
Building early learning opportunities into public spaces such as parks is part of an effort, led by Studer Community Institute, to build Pensacola into an “Early Learning City,” a place that enlists the whole community in building a culture of lifelong learning, including in its public spaces.
It’s an important effort because only 66 percent of Escambia County’s kindergartners are ready for kindergarten on the first day of school according to the most recently available data from the Florida Office of Early Learning.
An Early Learning City is a community that support early brain development, parent engagement and school readiness for all of our children, especially those ages birth to 5.
The Blake Doyle Skate Park is part of a larger plan to develop the Hollis T. Williams Greenway, a project that would run from Jordan to Wright streets. It has been on the books at the City since the early 2000s but has gained little traction. It will be named for Blake Doyle, who died in 2015.
On Oct. 13, Pensacola City Council gave its blessing to the project, which will put a skate park on the block of Hayne and Jackson streets a stone’s throw from the Pensacola Police Department.
“If we had a safe, positive environment for me to practice the sport that I love, I would have stayed out of a lot of trouble,” Shell told City Council on Oct. 13.
Shell says the proximity of the Innisfree Hotels, From the Ground Up Community Garden is another part of what made that location appealing for the project.
The goal now is to raise money for soft costs — architectural, engineering and site work — estimated at $100,000. Landscape architect Steve Dana of Jerry Pate Design has been working with Shell on a preliminary look for the site.
Dana was among the crowd at City Hall who spoke in favor of the project.
“Many city parks have signs that say ‘no running,’ ‘no biking,’ ‘no skateboarding,’” Dana said. (Shell and his supporters) want to create a better, more vibrant community for the rest of us. I’m glad to hear you support them.”
Working in design elements, play and learning equipment that will help young children develop their motor, sensory and early language skills is still in flux.
But it is something that Shell is committed to.
“Kids can walk through the garden and learn about nutrition, wellness and diet,” he says. “They’re going to see the police station right across the street and that could determine their first interactions with police officers and I think it’s much more likely to be a positive one.”
City Administrator Eric Olson says that in the Hollis T. Williams plan, generated around 2004, were plans for a skate park. The University of West Florida is conducting a needs assessment of city parks. Turns out skatepark is high up on the public’s wish list for park amenities based on the preliminary results of that survey, Olson says.
“The vision is that that stretch becomes an active corridor,” Olson says. “We have what we think is a strong BP oil spill funded project for that area that would have a dual-use athletic fields that can be stormwater retention ponds when wet and athletic fields when they are dry.”
Shell says he has spoken with Megan McCarthy, director of Healthy Lives with Baptist Healthcare. McCarthy is leading an effort to create Blue Zones in Escambia County, which consistently ranks as one of the least healthy counties in Florida.
Blue Zones are areas that aim to use changes in public, social and environmental policy in communities to improve health outcomes and life expectancy.
“There are people who believe their health is determined by genetics or some superhuman version of willpower where reality is that our health is much more influenced by our ZIP code and our environment regardless of where you live,” McCarthy says.
When you look at how Escambia County ranks in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s health rankings, McCarthy says, you see that in this community, we have a ways to go to make healthy a part of everyone’s life.
The skatepark is meant to be one of those hubs in our community that there’s something for everyone, increasing the fitness of the family and we need more and more of those, McCarthy says.
“Healthy is never going to be made cool by the hospital,” she says, “(and) the healthiest choice has to be the easiest choice. As soon as it’s cool to be healthy and everyone is OK with striving to be healthy and that’s a goal and value we all have, that is what will put us over the tipping point.”
Shell says that the park could be one of the places that helps change with a focus on healthy eating, exercise and sense of community.
Shell’s next step is planning a Dec. 23 event at Vinyl Music Hall to raise money to begin covering the $200,000 estimated for the planning of the project. Spohn Ranch which has done work for the X Games, has agreed to design the skatepark part of the project.
Once that is complete, Shell says, construction documents and a total cost for the project would be clear. He believes there is grant money and state and federal funding opportunities that may be available for the project.
Once the park is complete, it will be turned over to the city, which Olson says will take over the maintenance costs.
The early learning aspects of the park are still in the discussion phase, but Shell is excited about how those pieces could add to the family atmosphere of the park overall. It fits into his Upward Intuition efforts to be a catalyst for positive change in the community. Those efforts begin with the skatepark, but Shell hopes they will extend throughout the Hollis T. Williams Greenway — and beyond.
“While this area is a vital link to our waterfront, it’s being underutilized,” Shell says. “Splash pads, walking path, public art, all could be part of that. Our goal is to make an incredible destination park for all ages, but also to be the catalyst for the redevelopment of that entire corridor that is the gateway into our city.”