Rollin' with the King 

Local Christians wrestle with the county over a skate park

Skateboarders are nasty little devils. They deface public property, buzz little old ladies in walkers and generally thumb their noses at authority. But when the South Hills Evangelical Church (SHEC) approached Missoula County with a proposal to forge a partnership and build a skate park for local kids, it wasn’t the punk stigma the church had to deal with. Instead, SHEC’s effort has stumbled because of its status as a religious organization.

On May 8, SHEC and the church’s rock and roll youth organizations—In One Ear Ministries and Flipside Skate Park—met with the Missoula County Park Board with a proposal to lease land from the county to build an in-door skate park, teen center, concert hall, community center and church. The initial proposal wowed many on the board, which voted unanimously to form a sub-committee to examine the facility’s feasibility.

“They had an excellent presentation,” says Missoula County Commissioner and Park Board member Barbara Evans. “It was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen.”

All signs pointed to go until the sub-committee met with Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt. When Sehestedt took a look at the plans, he saw constitutional and logistical red flags everywhere. The plan would force an overhaul of the citizen-approved Fort Missoula Regional Park Master Plan, and it would cost more than the Park Board has to spend, he told the board. All those problems might be solvable, but Sehestedt also saw a more fundamental, perhaps insurmountable obstacle. According to a letter written by Park Board staffer Lisa Moisey to SHEC, the major concern centered on “the County becoming unduly entangled in a relationship with a religious organization.”

“What they want to put up is a sanctuary that can also be used as a skate park,” says Sehestedt, pointing out that SHEC’s facility would have a decidedly religious bent to it. “[It would involve] government support of religion, and then we are going to be entangled with them, since we’ll have to administer this agreement.”

Sitting in his office overlooking SHEC’s skate park—thrown up temporarily in the church parking lot—Pastor John Erbele is baffled over the sub-committee’s letter. Is it religious discrimination? He says he “doesn’t want to go there yet,” but adds that he believes the letter carries a discriminating tone.

Erbele says the logistical problems are easily remedied. The church plans to fund the entire project and has already lined up corporate sponsors to help, and there is nothing in the master park plan that disallows a skate park. This leaves the county opposing the project based solely on religion, he says.

The SHEC flock has spent the last few years courting skateboarders and others who traditionally fall through the religious cracks (see “Christian Cool,” by Jed Gottlieb, Sept. 9, 2003). This and other non-traditional approaches have led to an attendance boom, and attendant growing pains. The congregation no longer fits in its building and is searching for a new location, while holding services at the Meadow Hill Public School.

“We don’t want to spend $2 million on a building that’s only used once a week,” says Erbele. “We’re actually trying to do this county a favor. Yeah, we could do this somewhere else, but we want to do this with the county to create something positive for the community.”

Erbele says that the city and county need to find a way to work with skateboarders. The current Missoula City Council initiative to ban skateboarding on city sidewalks is only going to heighten tensions and accomplish nothing, he says. And even with Pearl Jam’s commitment of $50,000 to develop a public skate park in Missoula, and its urging of boarders to get involved in public process, Erbele says neither the city nor county will ever actually build a park.

“They won’t take the liability,” he says. “I told the Park Board that they wouldn’t build a skate park because of this and they all laughed because they knew I was right.”

But even SHEC’s offer to remove the liability hasn’t helped change Sehestedt’s mind.

During the board’s June 12 meeting, he elaborated on the concerns voiced in the letter. He said that the county would have a hard time “justifying this relationship,” later adding that it would be “unprecedented.”

While the county does lease facilities like park pavilions to churches and other groups, SHEC’s proposal is for a long-term lease agreement at a facility run by a religious group—a deal-breaker in the deputy attorney’s estimation.

When Erbele took the mic at the meeting to counteract Sehestedt, he put on his Sunday service game face. With the room full of SHEC parishioners and skateboarders, Erbele picked over the attorney’s argument, hoping to win the board over. Something in Erbele’s speech registered. Though many expected the proposal to die that day, the board recommended that it be tabled until the parties could examine the proposal more closely and search for a way to make it work.

Whatever the outcome, SHEC won’t be breaking ground on county land for quite some time.

“I would say that the timeline is lengthier than SHEC thinks it will be,” says board President Sue Brown. “They are going to be disappointed, I think, to find out what a long process this is.”

Until a decision is made, Missoula’s SHEC skaters will have to hoof it up the hill to Flipside’s church parking lot or use the YMCA park. And SHEC will have to continue to make due at the public school.

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