The future of Lodi's Kofu Park Skate Park is in limbo after continuing problems with alcohol, drugs, littering and criminal activity.
In late August, city staff closed the park after users refused to pick up their trash despite repeated warnings, said Jeff Hood, interim director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.
Staff decided to continue to leave the gates locked until they could discuss a variety of problems at the park and possible solutions at a Recreation Commission meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
"I don't know if there has ever been a day where I've gone out there and haven't seen kids smoking marijuana, rolling marijuana joints or evidence of alcohol use," Hood said.
At the meeting, Hood hopes to hear from the public on ways to prevent illegal behavior at the park.
"There are teens and young adults congregating to get high, and if it were any other park, it wouldn't be tolerated," he said.
The problems: Alcohol, drugs, litter, confrontations
The main problem started when city staff could no longer mow the park because of trash on the ground.
Despite six garbage cans at the skate park, Hood said people litter continuously, including fast food wrappers, drink containers and tobacco and drug-related trash, like rolling papers.
The two city employees who work at Kofu Park spend about five hours each week picking up trash, which translates to $4,000 to $5,000 a year in staff costs, Hood said.
"We can't have them spending that much time picking up after a few irresponsible people," Hood said.
While the litter problem has been ongoing for months, Hood said he gave a final notice on Aug. 27. He talked with a skater who asked for flyers to distribute. The teen passed out 100 notices and the trash problem improved for a day. But then the garbage quickly started to accumulate again, Hood said.
On Aug. 30, city staff closed the park to prepare for mowing, which they did this past Wednesday. Then, staff decided to keep it closed until the Recreation Commission meeting.
The problems at the park are not just trash-related. They also include confrontations and other illegal activity, Hood said.
The city employee who closes parks at the end of the day has been spit on and had the gate grabbed from her hand as she was trying to lock it, Hood said. Volunteers with Boosters of Boys & Girls Sports have been yelled at and harassed on the nearby baseball diamond. And in September, police arrested a 26-year-old man on charges of raping a 13-year-old in the bathroom next to the skate park. Both had been drinking, according to police.
Police have done sweeps in the park and arrested kids for smoking marijuana, selling drugs and drinking alcohol, Hood said. From April 1 through Aug. 30, police were called more than two dozen times.
During the summer, One-Eighty Teen Center executive director Jake McGregor organized a group to go out the park every Tuesday to barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs and talk with the kids. The nonprofit teen center on Lockeford Street works with many of the kids who also skate at Kofu. The center even has its own skate ramps.
"We wanted to be a non-threatening, loving presence out there," he said.
McGregor also witnessed littering, drugs and alcohol in the park.
"Anytime you have a place you have designed for youths and young adults, you also have to prepare for the issues that group brings to the table," he said.
Several of the ramps need to be replaced because of wear and tear, Hood said, but before the city spends the $5,000 in repair, he wants to find a solution to the problems at the park.
One potential option is closing the skate park. But Hood said he realizes having a place to skate and bike is important for teens. He is hopeful the public and the Recreation Commission will be able to come up with a solution.
"I feel bad for those responsible users who just want to skate," Hood said.
The park is also important for kids who do not have anywhere to go after school or during the summer, McGregor said.
"They need to have that place, they need to have that outlet," he said.
Possible solutions: 'Those at-risk kids need all types of mentoring in their lives'
At the meeting on Tuesday, Hood said he wants suggestions from the public on how to handle the problems.
"Let's have a discussion about it, because I don't agree with it continuing this way," he said. "The police department doesn't like the conduct over there, and the people who are using the rest of Kofu Park don't like the conduct at the park."
There are several options on the table, Hood said. The city could continue operating it as is, reduce the hours or open it only on the weekends, have a volunteer group or organization help manage it, or close it.
One of the challenges is that the skater and biker crowd has historically been a rebellious group, McGregor said, and being an enforcer will not work.
"It takes a special level of patience in your interactions to guide them," he said.
At the park, the younger kids often look to the older teens or those in their 20s for guidance. McGregor said. He said that this is an opportunity for community groups to come together to create a positive environment for kids who need good role models.
"The need that's being served at the skate park is a lot of at-risk kids have a place to go," McGregor said. "So let's take the second step. Those at-risk kids need all types of mentoring in their lives, and we as a community need to give them more than just a place to show up."
McGregor said he has been talking with Hood about the teen center spending one day each week at the park again. For others who want to get involved with a volunteer group at the park, he said there could be training on the best way to work with the kids.
He admits that a volunteer effort could be hard to organize because of the workload.
Another potential solution, McGregor said, is hiring someone to coordinate a presence at the park or provide supervision.
Originally, when the skate park opened in 2002, a contractor charged admission and monitored the park, Hood said. The contract was canceled in December 2003 because of low revenue.
While McGregor understands the city has to look at liability, safety and budget issues, he is optimistic that there is enough community interest to create a positive atmosphere at the park.
"At the end of the day, you have to have boots on the ground, and I think that's a viable option to keep the skate park open," he said.
The meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St.