The Business Of Building: Spohn Ranch

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Aaron Spohn started skating the streets of Los Angeles at age 12. The year was 1972, and Spohn and friends began to push the limits, creating their own skate ramps and getting their fair share of bruises and broken bones, the young skater realized the city could benefit from an actual skate park.

“A group of friends and I lobbied the City for a skatepark in Venice,” says Spohn, who now owns Spohn Ranch skateparks, a company that has now built a name for itself by completing a myriad of high profile projects, including LA’s first concrete skate plaza and  working with skate legend Chris Miller to create the world's first portable concrete bowl for the Mountain Dew Tour.  “We attended countless meetings, built models and made speeches, but our park was never built.”

Spohn decided to take matters into his own hands, building a giant half-pipe in his backyard, and as that one half-pipe began to multiply, things began to escalate quickly, he says.

“It became impossible to keep our little skate spot a secret and before long, ‘Spohn Ranch’ was a destination for skaters from around the world,” says the skate park builder. “In 1995, I caught a big break when ESPN came looking for help with this new contest series called the "X-Games.”

Through work with the X-Games, Spohn Ranch has grown itself by branching out into a wide array of special event work, and at the same time experiencing a natural transition into building permanent parks for municipalities and government agencies. Today, the company is proudly celebrating twenty years of business, having designed and built over 600 skateparks, in nearly all fifty states and  10 countries, which include the first skateable sculpture garden in South Jordan, Utah, a concrete skatepark for the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, and  a 4,000-square- foot, 12' deep bowl on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, only to transport it to Portland, Oregon the following week where it was re-installed.

My obsession with skating began on the streets of Los Angeles in 1972, when I got my first skateboard at the age of twelve.

Recently, Spohn and his crew are working on building a second office headquartered in Culver City, but we were able to track him down to learn more about the history of the company, his take on skate park building, and get his insight into the future of the business.

In what specific ways have you seen the skatepark landscape evolve and change over the years?

When I first started building parks, many cities thought skateboarding was a problem and that skateparks were the quick solution to that problem. They viewed skateboarding as a fad and a nuisance, rather than the art form that it truly is. It was a challenge convincing them that skateparks could be more than just a solution to a problem, but a way to create a vibrant and architecturally-intriguing community space.

Over the years, we've gotten much smarter and more in-tune with the municipal world. I am frequently invited to speak about skateparks at national and state parks/rec conferences. With 150+ lectures under my belt, we have become very effective with educating cities on how to correctly navigate the skatepark development process so that the end result is an enduring success for both the city and its skaters. Rather than being content with dropping some ramps on an abandoned tennis court, we are presenting skateparks as beautiful, aesthetically-engaging works of art

Rather than building one park and calling it good, we are also educating cities on skatepark master planning - creating a strategic network of neighborhood parks, skate spots and skate dots that better accommodate the skateboarding population while providing a diverse experience.

We are also helping ensure that parks are being utilized to their full potential beyond the grand opening. In 2001, I founded a company that operates skateparks called the Action Park Alliance. When a city built a large skatepark and decided they were going to staff it, we realized we would much rather see it staffed by people that live and breathe skateboarding and who are respected in the local skate community. Rather than creating an antagonistic relationship focused merely on rule enforcement, our staff focuses on programming and events that transform the skatepark into a tight-knit community space.

Where do you think the future of skate parks is headed? What types of strategies has your company been working on to keep up with what's happening in the skate market?

Skateboarders are constantly progressing and we strive to create parks that serve as the platform for continued creativity and innovation. While progressive terrain is a core principal in our design philosophy, the overarching focus is fun. "How fun is it?" is hands down the most important question you can ask to assess the quality of a skatepark. At the heart of every skateboarder's reason for stepping on a board each day is the desire to have fun. And since many skateboarders first step each day is towards their local skatepark, we have a very important duty as a skatepark design/build firm to make each park as fun for its local users as possible.

While fun skateboarding can mean something different to every skateboarder, there are qualities of a fun experience that are consistent across the board and thus should be reflected in a good skatepark.

Just as the balance of the terrain styles allows riders to evolve their skills, the difficulty level of the features themselves is also very important in creating a fun way to progress. A good skatepark isn't designed solely for the 1% of skateboarders who are aiming to turn pro. At the same time, however, the park shouldn't cater to someone who has never stepped on a skateboard. There is a perfect middle ground that Spohn Ranch has been aiming to perfect since our first parks in the early '90s.

Every skateboarder at some point in their lives has rode at a park where all of the features are huge and very challenging to skate. It's not a fun experience and it’s incredibly discouraging. A good skatepark provides features of varying difficulty level to accommodate the full spectrum of experiences - from the kinds of days where you want a mellow session to the days where you wake up feeling hungry and aren't worried about taking a slam or two on a big obstacle.

In addition, the skateparks of the future shouldn't feel like a place where you sentenced to ride, but more like a naturally-occurring environment that just so happens to allow skateboarding. This is when the freedom, artistic expression and most importantly fun can occur most easily. If a skatepark feels too intentional or like a cage, it diminishes the experience.

What is the most challenging aspect of skate park construction and what strategies does your company have in place to help combat these?

Executing construction is not the real challenge. We have been building skateparks for 20 years now and have a dedicated and skilled crew. With proper planning, design and engineering, there isn't a job our veteran crew can't handle. Educating municipalities remains the real challenge of our business. While we have made great strides in this regard, there are still plenty of cities who want to solve the skateboarding "problem" with the cheapest and quickest solution, rather than investing the time and effort to involve the community in a well-rounded process.

A Spohn Ranch skate park in Oregon, Illinois

A Spohn Ranch skate park in Oregon, Illinois

On what level are you involved with retailers, brands, and the skate community as a whole? What opportunities do you believe exist for partnerships?

During our planning/design process we try to involve the local skate community as much as possible - from local shops and brands to the skaters themselves. This ensures the users have a sense of ownership and pride in their park – diminishing the risk of graffiti, violence and other issues that can potentially shut the park down.

Skate shops and brands are also extremely important because they serve as the hub of the local skateboarding community. By connecting with them, you are tapping into their entire network of support. This can be extremely beneficial for grass roots projects whose success depend on community fundraising and showing the city that the project has a large network of support.

Once the park is open, we encourage brands and retailers to use our parks as event space to promote their businesses as well as the skateboarding industry as a whole. When the world's best professional skateboarders film a youtube video/montage at one of our parks, we now have a great tool for educating municipalities on how skateparks are meant to function. With brands and retailers using our parks as contest space or stops on cross-country tours, we can also entice cities by showing them that high-quality skateparks can have a positive economic impact in the community.

What types of features and construction types are most popular now?

When we first started building skateparks in the public sector, many municipalities felt that skateboarding was just a fad and thus were hesitant in allowing us to build permanent concrete parks. Over the years, the evidence mounted that skateboarding was here to stay and that concrete construction was more durable and allowed more creative freedom

Today, we pride ourselves on offering a construction method for every situation; lumber construction for indoor parks, in-house metal fabrication for grind rails and metal edging, shotcrete for bowls and transition elements, pre-casting concrete manual pads and benches to create a Cherry Park-esque skate spot and everything and anything else in-between.

From the design perspective, we conduct roughly 25  to 30 design workshops/charettes across the country each year. We have participants fill out detailed surveys on their skating background, skill level and desired ratio of street/transition terrain.

Combining this analysis with our own general perception of the industry, we have great insight into what gets today's skater excited. Looking back at this past year, we are still seeing a large push for street-inspired skate plazas, but the trend seems to be coming full circle towards well-balanced parks that feature all terrain styles. If we added up all of our survey results from this past year, we'd probably be looking at a request for a plaza/transition ratio of 65/35%. In the end, it really depends on the community though. The skateparks and naturally occurring spots already in the area will typically shape what the skaters want.

Skateboarders across the globe also seem to appreciate our focus on creating skateparks that don't look like the typical skatepark. They enjoy a unique space, something that is aesthetically-pleasing and has an atmosphere that is conducive to photography and videography.

Whether you like the competitive aspect of these events or not, it's hard to argue with an increased perception of legitimacy leading to more high-quality skateboarding environments in the public sector.

 What role do major events like the X Games play in park progression?

Our role in the original X-Games was a contributing factor in the second wave of skateparks in the late '90s and early 2000's. Skateboarding surged in popularity and municipalities saw the need for designated spaces to accommodate their communities' growing number of skateboarders

Both then and now, there's always the possibility that a parks and rec director or city planner is watching the X-Games or Dew Tour on national television, finally appreciating the athleticism and focus that skateboarding requires. Whether you like the competitive aspect of these events or not, it's hard to argue with an increased perception of legitimacy leading to more high-quality skateboarding environments in the public sector.

Our course designs for special events like the Dew Tour both reflect what's going on in the industry and also lead the way for new trends. Kids look up to pros and want to emulate what they are doing, so as our course designs continue to push the envelope, skate communities want to see that same innovative quality reflected in their neighborhood park.

Rialto, California  skate park.

Rialto, California skate park.

When the skatepark becomes more than just a fun place to ride and transforms into a live television set with lots of money on the line, perfection is mandatory. We are required to have an in-depth understanding of angles, spacing and dimensions for every feature and line imaginable. Working in this special event world has helped hone both our design and construction skillsets, empowering our municipal work with a level of detail and performance that is unmistakable.

How has the average costs of parks these days changed?

Beyond the obvious effects of inflation, costs are higher from what they were when we first started building skateparks in the early '90s – but for the right reasons.

During the design process, we are taking our time. We are working with local artists and architects. We are researching ways to weave local culture/heritage into the design. We are conducting a thorough analysis of the soil and commissioning environmental impact reviews to make sure the park doesn't encounter any surprises down the road.

More of our parks feature imaginative color patterns, integrated landscaping, aesthetic enhancements like brick/granite and sculptural elements that double as architectural focal points. Skateboarding is too beautiful of an art form to be relegated to a dull grey concrete slab. We are taking every available opportunity to build the kinds of artistic environments that skateboarding deserves.

In addition to better complementing the art of skateboarding, we've found that these enhancements have helped municipalities find it easier to get on board with skatepark projects and often be more likely to allocate funding.

On the construction side, we are using higher quality materials at every step of the way, we are meticulous in wrapping all grindable surfaces in metal edging – all steps that are vital for the long-term safety and skateability of our skateparks.

What role do skateparks play in the progression of the sport and the growth of the sport’s popularity?

For some skateboarders, the skatepark is where they start their day before heading out to the streets. The smooth concrete, optimal spacing and perfect geometry creates the ideal environment for learning new tricks and progressing. We also try to incorporate unique features that require a creative perspective and expand the skateboarder's skill set.

For others, skateparks may be the only setting where they ever ride. Not everybody is going to weave in and out of NYC traffic to skate a ledge or hop fences to find an empty swimming pool. We focus on creating aesthetically-inviting parks that become social-gathering spaces - a second home for the local skateboarders. Skateparks like this make the skateboarding experience very accessible and simply by existing, introduce the activity to groups of people that may not stumble upon it without such an abundance of safe, designated spaces.

An increase in the number and quality of skateparks breeds more skateboarders, which hopefully translates into an economic benefit for brands and retailers. With more skateboarders creating the need for even more parks and so on, we have ourselves a self-sustaining cycle that allows the industry as a whole to thrive.

What are the role of DIY parks like Burnside, etc? How can communities work to get their own?

The do-it-yourself spirit is at the heart of everything that we do. The drive to create is why I started building ramps when I first started skating and it can be seen in the passion and dedication in all of my employees.

The feeling of skating something you built with your own two hands is magical and is something that I would recommend every skateboarder experience.

That being said, over the years we've seen countless DIY skateparks and spots, including several of our own, destroyed at the hands of municipalities and private property owners. While there is something special to be said about renegade concrete work, it's a shame to see so many innovative structures torn down simply because the builder didn't go through the proper channels.

As cities continue to warm up to skateboarding, an alternate route that seems very promising is what some are calling "permission DIY". This involves a local group working with their City government to legitimize their efforts and ensure the longevity of the spot. With skilled builders overseeing the specialty work, the results can be fantastic. By becoming a formal 501c3 and working with the City, you still enjoy the freedom of DIY construction, but without the risk of having your hard work go down the drain.

Many of our municipal projects embody the DIY spirit as well. We work very hard to empower non-profits and skatepark committees with the tools and information to get materials and services donated to the project. By helping them skillfully tap into their community's resources (public works, local contractors, etc.) for all of the non-specialty work, construction budgets can be lowered and projects accomplished much faster. And again, with skilled builders like ourselves handling the specialty work (pouring and finishing the skateable elements themselves), the result is a high-quality skatepark that will last for decades to come.