Thursday, 26 June 2014

Be more Swede

With the large indoor park in Nottingham closing its doors (as of 1st May) social media chatter has jumped between hopes that the current owners will find  new investors to bold dreams of brothers getting involved themselves and putting money down before the ramps are taken away.

But without careful reflection, simply jabbing the repeat button on the previous strategy will result in exactly the same outcome a few months down the line.

Running an indoor skate park in the UK, and anywhere in Northern Europe, is a worthy thing to do, and hugely important for the local scene  - given the prevailing weather conditions for two thirds of the year.  However, recent history is strewn with similar stories - and Flo's Facebook post citing "increasing competition from outdoor parks and also lack of support from our local community" suggests both a fundamental misunderstanding of the service-community relationship and a lack of imagination. 

This gap between how things are and how things could be looks even wider after viewing Phil Evans' incredible 'Coping Mechanism' documentary on the skate scene in Malmo - a small, post-industrial Swedish city, previously grotty but now the beneficiary of major regeneration, that has much in common with grand old Nottingham (something identified with actual science !!!?! in some research I produced for Nottingham City Councils' Growth Strategy in my day job). 

Coping Mechanism is a film that is hard to watch without thinking "we should do things differently."

Rather than raging against a 'lack of support' from the community, as if such support were a given right - the skaters and entrepreneurs of Malmo have thought creatively about what they want their scene to look like over the long term, what needs to be done to achieve that vision, and how viable businesses and public services can help achieve that.  Whilst the Malmo street and DIY scene, Pontus and Polar all provide inspiration for the rank and file skaters, of all ages, ability and gender, Skate Malmo and the Bryggeriat indoor park & high school provide ideas for those with grander designs within their local scene, including prospective entrepreneurs and skate park campaigners looking for a more fruitful dialogue with local government.

Demand for indoor skate parks is fundamentally seasonal; urban business floor space is expensive; and councils and government agencies are loathe to give money away to anyone who doesn't appear to know what they're doing (unless they're re-constructing Lady Bay skate park, unfortunately).  However, Bryggeriat has flourished - achieving significant public funding from the Swedish Government, genuine high school status, and bagging that recent Berrics coverage courtesy of Chris Mulhern - facing those same challenges.

Skateboarders will always favour the outdoors when the sun is shining: we should not be blamed for this behaviour.  However much time top pros now spend in southern Californian warehouses to maintain their bankability, the rest of us giddily race outdoors at the first sight of dry concrete.  This doesn't make us disloyal customers - we're simply behaving as skateboarders always have and will do: its predictable, and any business plan needs to account for this.

A well run indoor skate park has to do two things: plan for this seasonality and draw on income streams significantly in excess of just admission fees - in other words, be more than 'just' a skate park.  This is where the Bryggeriet example comes in, even though Conservative Britain is far from social democratic Sweden.  If we want a sustainable indoor park, within a healthy, productive and fucking rad scene, the following lessons are surely worth thinking on:

  1. Do not plan to make profit in the traditional sense (this also goes to those setting up board companies right now).  This sound obvious, but the objectives in a business plan tell your bank and other investors (e.g. venture capitalists) what you expect to achieve, and what's in it for them.  If you promise significant returns, and then go off and build a skate park, you will have disappointed investors who will want their money back.  If your objectives are social, qualitative rather than quantitative, a skate park (or portfolio of multiple skate parks) won't make you rich, but it may attract a different kind of investor.  In short, a skate park in the UK is much more likely to be sustainable if it looks more like a social enterprise or charity, rather than a traditional for-profit company. 

    This fundamental difference in business objectives, and the kind of organisation delivering them, affects how much and what kind of money you can access....  which brings us to the need to:
  2. Secure public funding.  Very few long-running UK skate parks survive through private revenue alone.  Entry fees and revenue from events may suffice through the autumn/winter - but they are unlikely to be sufficient to cover the spring-summer slump, year after year, unless you try to compensate by marking up the entry price: in which case you push costs beyond the means of punters in their teens and early twenties (i.e. your majority demograph), or you need to draw in hundreds of casual, short-term users on scooters (mainly small children) - driving out the people you built the place for in the first place. 

    Even in these austere times, there's a lot of public and third-sector funding out there - if you can make a sincere case and are then willing to deliver the promised outcomes.  The guys who set up the House in Sheffield credited the importance of a Prince's Trust grant in an interview in Sidewalk, whilst the original establishment of Skegness' X-Site plaza and indoor park was supported by major regeneration funding secured through Lincolnshire Enterprise and the now-defunct Regional Development Agency.

    And the timing is ripe for this.  The next round of European 'structural' funding starts imminently (the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, and the European Social Fund, ESF, for 2014-2020), funding bids for which will be considered by the Local Enterprise Partnership - with literally millions of Euros available to those organisations who can meet the criteria.  The likes of Sport England and the Arts Council, although heavily affected by cuts, have policy objectives around 'raising participation' for children and adults in sports and active lifestyles (a clear rationale for funding a skate park) and in the arts (more of this later).

    Accessing this sort of investment may make a skate park viable in the long-term, but cannot be pursued lightly.  If you are aiming to cynically hoover up every bit of public or charitable funding possible, you are not only the worst type of person - you'll also never make it through the long meetings, application and monitoring forms, and evaluation required (quite rightly - this is public money that could otherwise be spent on health centres, care for vulnerable children, etc. - impact needs to be provable). 

    It has to be approached with a heartfelt aim of using skateboarding to meet the social objectives of the funding applied for - which of course it can: we all know dudes who'd be lost to drugs and alcohol if not for skateboarding. 

    There are also a load of creative ways a skate park can meet such social inclusion and regeneration objectives....
  3. Diversification.  Indoor skate parks need large premises / Skateboarders are polymaths with an appreciation of diverse but related interests - fine arts, graphic design and web-based multi-media, photography, music, journalism, architecture, healthy lifestyle practices such as yoga, vegan cooking, etc. (as well as unbelievably unhealthy living - but lets leave that to one side), to name a few (and I can name some brothers with an interest and annoying skill level in all of these). 

    In Mulhern's Bryggeriet documentary, former London locatee (and one time Unabomber am) Gustav Eden talks about how young skaters absorb knowledge across a broad spectrum without necessarily recognising it, giving them an educational 'head start' on other young adults - as long as they are able to recognise the connections between skate board life and the wider world, which is where facilities and mentoring can play a really important role.  Eden talks about using what teenagers love to motivate them to engage in the skills they need for the rest of their lives.

    A well-thought out business plan could tap into these opportunities to generate diverse ways of productively using all that unused space.  A dark-room, that local photographers share and pay a small rent on?   Gallery space, perhaps in the café area, with a rotating cycle of stuff from photographers and artists?  Can the café area double as space for evening and weekend art lessons?  First aid courses? Film premieres and lectures?  Funders like interconnectivity - so time spent leafing through Nottingham's Growth Strategy, the Creative Quarter, etc. will pay dividends.

    Combining all of the things skaters are interested in, and good at, under one roof, can help you:
  4. Achieve social rather than commercial objectives.  In order to access that all-important public funding in a legitimate way, and achieve the kind of things that may stop us all burning in hell for the ignorant-ass hip hop and metal we listen to, linking the use of space with meaningful objectives is paramount. 

    Creative thinking can link what is necessary for public funding with what you would want to achieve for a productive, inclusive skate scene - diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background; harnessing the efforts of volunteers who'll give you their time just for the dumb fucking love of it; and connecting to and supporting other ventures across the scene (local shops and companies - in and connected to skateboarding).

    Despite the excitement generated by the Bryggeriet school documentary, I would be very surprised if Britain were ever to host something similarly progressive-minded   - given the leap of faith required to let kids learn by doing what they love (remembering that Bryggeriet is so much more than just allowing kids to skate in sports curricula, which is occurring in the UK).  Michael Gove, for all his talk on freeing up creativity in schools, is no progressive. 

    But, if we want - and I certainly do - skateboarding to embrace and benefit a wider demograph than upper-middle class 18-25 year old white males in Supreme 5-panels/ Teutonic side-partings (they'll be fine, indoor park or no, there's still Instagram) - the loss of an indoor park provides opportunity to think of the kind of stuff that should happen to secure our scene in the long-term.  Skate lessons for young kids - boys AND girls, working with local schools  and (most importantly) Academies in more deprived areas; getting parents participating rather than just standing there worriedly...  'rad dad'/mum' shouldn't be a derogatory term (Telegraph columnists can go sit in a puddle);  Working with Broadway and the Contemporary to build on those film and art links....  some of the output brothers casually shit out and bung on youtube stands up pretty good.
None of this makes money, but it justifies funding.  The two things are different - one might make a couple of individuals some cash in the short term; the other supports the scene, and the local industry, to be something we will all benefit from in the long term - and will create more sustainable employment.  Social enterprises might not make huge profits, but they can pay living wages - for a broader range of motivated people than the (sadly all too common) fare of a couple of bored looking blokes sat by the entrance who desperately wants to shut up for the day, and love skateboarding far less for working within it.

I'm sure brothers in progressively minded parks like X-Site and the House are already nailing much of this.  But I live in Nottingham - and a lack of an indoor park will hurt come October.   

1 comment:

  1. A will constructed piece of righting, as a Notts skater I felt insulted by flo's comments about the lack of community support. Cheeky considering the cost of skating there. I always said they never kept it fresh or used the space for workshops etc. It was a blinding bowl though.