COVER STORY

CONCRETE RENEWAL

How Kona Skatepark is recovering its famous flow, starting with the iconic Snake Run

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Martin Ramos has a vision. It starts at the front door of Kona Skatepark, where a big sign enumerating the facility’s lengthy rules begins with “Dedicated to the youth of Jacksonville … A skatepark for the whole family.” Ramos, whose close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard is the only thing that belies his 47 years, has cultivated that mission, which was originally instituted by his parents in 1977, since assuming ownership of the park in 1995. Today, that vision expands much further, across the vast concrete expanse’s more than 30,000 square feet.

Although Ramos has grand designs on transforming the trees that separate Kona from the Arlington Expressway into campgrounds, a clearing around Strawberry Creek, and facilities to hold 1,000 spectators, his vision of improvement begins with the Snake Run. Parts of the surf-inspired speed curvature are still as smooth as the day it was laid as the park’s original feature in 1977. Other parts are rough, cracked, and swollen, as can be expected of anything left to bake in the brutal Florida sun for nearly 40 years.

But the Snake, which descends 100 feet by the end of its 700-foot run, is still the most iconic feature at what is widely considered the oldest privately owned skatepark in the U.S., if not the world. “In the ’70s, skatepark design was all a big experiment,” Ramos says. “Skateboarding was all about carving and sliding, but no one had capitalized on elevation changes the way Kona did. This was the first park built on a hill — and that made the Snake Run, which was a shot in the dark originally, so unique.”

After skaters sign a release of liability, purchase a yearly pass ($3), pay a daily rate ($7 during the week, $10 on weekends), and emerge from Kona’s air-conditioned pro shop/snack bar/clubhouse, the Snake Run is the first thing that catches their eye. The rest of the park — J-Run, Freestyle Mogul, Bowl, Pool, Vert Ramp, Street Course — flows outward from its ribbed gray walls and aquamarine bottom. Playboy Magazine included it on the ultimate man’s bucket list. It makes a prominent appearance in the wildly popular 2002 video game Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. Fifty-something icons like Steve Olson and Dave Hackett still swear by it, according to local surf and skate legend Mitch Kaufmann. “To this day, the Snake Run is the fastest, most functional venue in the world for downhill slalom racing,” Kaufmann says. “It’s the ultimate proving ground. There’s no limit to the speed you can harness on it.”

Which is why, after a $50,000 GoFundMe campaign that began on Sept. 30 and ends on Oct. 28, Ramos plans on making the Snake Run the first part of Kona Skatepark to undergo a wholesale renovation. After that, another $1 million in improvements are planned throughout the park in coming years. Though plans are still under wraps, Ramos has sought expert advice on advanced technology for Kona’s Snake Run reno.

“We’re doing another experiment, 40 years after the last one,” Ramos says. “The Snake Run is basically one big natural expansion joint, so even though we’ve started repairs — smoothing out the rough areas, followed by patching and painting it throughout October — we’ve started looking for a more long-term solution.”

Prefacing that has been the biggest general cleanup of the park in years: Removing weather-beaten ramps, giving the Kona grounds a facelift clearing out debris, overgrown trees, grass, and weeds, and painting the observation decks … “It’s been a slow process, but we’re definitely making progress,” Ramos says. “Funding will certainly speed up the process, so right now we’re mostly focused on preparing the campaign more than anything else.”

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Kona’s history runs deep — and far beyond the Snake Run. At the 1977 East Coast Pro, Mitch Kaufmann stuck the first recorded elevator drop in skateboarding history on the 10-foot concrete bowl’s six-foot tombstone extension, itself an experiment requested by the park’s first generation of chargers. “When Kona opened, it was the biggest, fastest, heaviest, gnarliest skatepark in the state,” Kaufmann says. “So we were in heaven. There was no reason to go anywhere else.”

The 1978 U.S. Open attracted Dogtown legends like Shogo Kubo, Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and Jerry Valdez to the East Coast for the first time. That same year, freestyle wizard Rodney Mullen picked up his first sponsor, Central Florida’s Bruce Walker Skateboards, after a contest at Kona. The 1981 Kona Variflex Summer Nationals marked the first official pro/am contest held on a proper vert halfpipe — a photo of champion Steve Caballero even made the September 1981 cover of Thrasher Magazine — and skate demigod Tony Hawk visited Kona for the first time in 1982.

Kona rode skateboarding’s first big commercial wave through the mid-’80s, when local heavies like Buck Smith, Mike Peterson, Frank Baagoe, Scotty Johnson, and Neal Mims all got their starts. But the industry bottomed out in the late ’80s, when Kona stood alone, the only privately owned American skatepark left in existence. When street skating took over in the early ’90s, the park became a ghost town that survived, according to Ramos, thanks to a boom in inline skating. Retail sales rebounded in the flush early 2000s, and that’s when, Ramos says, Kona became a thriving retail shop with a skatepark out back. By 2003, things had stabilized enough for Ramos to save Daytona Beach’s Stone Edge Skate Park, whose iconic blue vert ramp was nearly bulldozed after 15 years in existence.

But the financial crisis of 2007-’08 left Kona holding $500,000 in inventory. Then Ramos endured his own personal hell in 2011: Two days before Christmas, an SUV plowed into him while he was riding his bike, crushing his leg, blowing out his knee, mangling his shoulder, and confining him to the hospital for six months. With his wife Laurie caring for their two younger daughters, Roxanne (now 11) and Scarlet (now 9), their oldest daughter Cassidy (now 21) about to start college, and the prolonged economic downturn necessitating further downsizing, Martin Ramos says Kona (and Stone Edge) almost went under. “Basically, when I was gone for those six months, nothing got done,” he says. “I had taken on so many responsibilities that the key man discount” — a metric used in small business sales to determine a key employee’s importance — “was 80 percent. But that’s life. Something’s always going to happen. No excuses.”

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Today, Martin Ramos is mostly back to his normal, endlessly energetic self. Business is on the upswing, too — revenue is a healthy 50/50 split between the park and the shop, while attendance varies from older ramp and pool diehards to younger street skating newbies. Yet Ramos admits to plenty of guilt about the current state of Kona’s physical infrastructure, a fact that was hammered home in May when First Coast News anchor Ken Amaro crashed the park with one of his trademark “On Your Side” investigations after a local mom complained about conditions.

“The main stress I have right now is people’s perceptions that the park is run down,” Ramos says. “Am I stoked on the current state of the park? No. It’s in the worst shape it’s been in 18 to 20 years. Everybody, including me, wants it to be better. Even if it was pristine, I’d still want more. But to say it’s in disrepair or unsafe? We’ve never made much money here. Skateparks are a labor of love. We’ve been able to keep the doors open without carrying any debt, but the price of that is we have a beat-up skatepark — and maintenance makes or breaks you. So I do appreciate that the news story raised awareness of what needs to be done and how much money is required. Now it’s time to go big.”

Ramos hopes a full-blown capital campaign, crowdfunding effort, and dedicated nonprofit can raise the $1 million he expects to spend on full renovations. The nuts and bolts of the rejuvenation process are already underway. When Kona first announced plans to redo the Snake Run in May, the Facebook post received more than 535 likes, 110 shares, and 70 comments, adding up to more than 35,000 insights.

A nonscientific assessment found that more than 95 percent of those insights were positive. There are critics, however, who accuse Ramos and his family of ripping off local skaters while neglecting the park’s infrastructure. Or those who point out that Kona used a $10,000 Kickback prize from the Gatorade Free Flow Tour 2010 to renovate nothing but its bathrooms. Or those who highlight the recent split between Ramos’ fourth annual GoSkate Day event at Hemming Plaza and the inaugural Go Skate Jax gathering at Riverside Arts Market. Or those who ridicule Kona for still adhering to its strict helmet policy and its antiquated “good language, good behavior, and safe skating” commandment.

Ramos says he prefers to focus on constructive responses to Kona’s issues — like the volunteers who showed up to help with phase one of repairing and replacing the street course. “That was very eye-opening and encouraging,” he says. “And I think it really speaks to the culture of skateboarding. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill crowd — these are genuinely passionate, articulate, and creative people who want to contribute.”

As it is with any established institution, Kona’s staunchest defenders are its most longtime adherents. And Ramos says those now run three generations deep. “I’ve got grandparents skating with grandkids, telling them what it was like to be here 30 years ago. Skateboarding brings families together; it can give kids direction, and it can keep adults healthy. When I grew up, skateboarding was one thing to everybody. Now it’s so many different things to so many different people.”

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What’s crazy is that Kona Skatepark almost didn’t have the chance to mean much to anyone. After opening its doors on June 4, 1977, the park went bankrupt twice in the next 18 months and sat dormant for six more before Ramos’ father, also named Martin, decided to purchase it in 1979. He and his wife, Helen, had no experience with skateboarding outside their son’s youthful enthusiasm; Martin III remembers his dad as the son of a Mexican sharecropper who worked his way up to administrator for Baptist Medical Center but still harbored a fierce entrepreneurial streak — and a passion for people.

“My parents were as mainstream as it gets, but didn’t care who you were, where you came from, how many tattoos you had, or if you had just gotten out of jail,” the younger Ramos says. “Let’s face it — in those early days, they were dealing with the dregs of society. Some of the gnarliest dudes in town became great friends with my parents, along with families like the Ringhavers, the Petways, the Hadlows, and the Claymans. All their kids grew up here with skateboarding as a positive, useful outlet. But everyone was treated with the same kindness and respect — no favoritism for anyone. That’s how my parents earned their respect.”

Respect came grudgingly in the ’80s, when Kona’s strict full-pads, no swearing, no smoking, and no drinking rules rubbed up against skateboarding’s outlaw image. Martin copped plenty of heat from his contemporaries, many of whom resented his free gear, professional contacts, and unlimited access to the park. So he left Jacksonville for Colorado and California in the early ’90s, returning home in 1995 to help take care of his father, who passed away at the age of 62. Then Martin Ramos took over the business.

The family had maxed out credit cards and taken out second and third mortgages on their house to keep Kona going. But with his mother still alive, Martin stuck by the park’s wholesome outlook, even as he struggled to cater to an underground street skating scene from which he felt disconnected. “I was just doing what I could do,” he laughs. “You know how everybody’s obsessed with DIY now? Kona has always been one big DIY experiment. I always say passion plus persistence equals success. But mainly I’ve just tried to perpetuate the ideals my parents fostered: accessibility, affordability, inclusion, and a sense of community.”

Ramos believes that mission has been significantly enhanced in the last five years. With the help of his wife and oldest daughter, who’s finishing her degree at Flagler College and has expressed interest in taking over the park, the family has placed more of an emphasis on events like Summer Skate Camp, Florida Bowlriders Cup, King of Kona, Dew Tour, and Pow Wow Pro/Am. “We fell into these events, but we’re good at them, so we figure, ‘Why not develop them?’” Ramos says. “We just have to find the right formula.”

He admits to looking at NASCAR and TPC for arena-style, outdoor experience inspiration that centers on a core activity. “We don’t have to be like the X-Games,” Ramos says. “Skateboarding can be the priority.” With a mix of guarded optimism, unabashed brio, and possible hubris, Ramos flashes a smile: “Jacksonville could be the San Diego of the South, and Kona could be the ultimate venue for those kinds of events. I want to create the Wrigley Field of skateboarding, open people’s eyes to how good it can be, and keep the authenticity of the Kona experience while sharing it with more people.”

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Glancing due east across Southside Boulevard at Regency Square Mall could easily squash such lofty goals. In 1979, the year Ramos’ parents bought Kona, Regency was one of the most profitable retail centers in the nation; by 2013, it lay claim to an abysmal 38 percent occupancy rate. But Kona has a few intangibles that set it apart. Skateboarders are notoriously dedicated and stubbornly loyal; Ramos says at least 10 weddings and ash-spreading ceremonies have been held at the park in recent years. “You don’t hear people saying, ‘Football saved my life,’” he says. “But that’s a common theme in skateboarding.”

Skateboarders are also egalitarian and averse to bullshit; Martin says that Kona has maintained mostly amicable relationships with the multitude of competing shops and parks that have come and gone over the last 40 years. “As soon as you stop being a part of the community, you’re done,” he says. “At least eight private parks have opened and said, ‘We’re going to show Kona how it’s done.’ But I’m a skater — if a new park opens, I want to skate it just like everyone else.”

Skateboarding is also old enough that its collective history is finally starting to matter. “It’s only in the last 10 years that the park has really started to mean something to people,” Ramos says. “The handing down of the culture has kept us relevant. So many skateboarders have come here for the Kona experience, and so much influential stuff has happened here that set the foundation for what skating is today. People want to go where great achievements happened, and there are very few iconic places left in skating.”

Local legend Buck Smith, who draws a straight line between his career as a professional skater and his early days at Kona, used the word “iconic” at least five times in our short conversation. “You just can’t find a skatepark like Kona anymore,” he says. “There’s none left. I grew up a mile-and-a-half away and watched the concrete being laid. I watched some of the best downhill skateboarders in the world go down the Snake Run for the first time in 1977, and now I go there all the time with my wife and daughter, who both skate. My daughter loves the Snake Run — she doesn’t like to skate anywhere else.”

At a park with an immensity that can overwhelm even the most experienced of newcomers, that versatility is the Snake Run’s primary appeal. “It’s different for every skater,” Ramos says. “You can haul ass and stay in the gutter, tuck your knees and get all surfy, or ride high off the lip of each bank … anyone can create their own line. It’s universal. Everyone enjoys figuring it out — even the best skaters in the world.”

Heavy lies the crown that assumes responsibility for such a universally loved piece of concrete — especially when it’s about to serve as the jumping-off point for the whole park’s facelift. And that’s where Martin Ramos’ vision comes in. “We look forward to being meticulous about the renovation process so we can get Kona Skatepark back to where people are proud of it,” he says. “That all starts with the Snake Run. Skateboarding is about having fun, and the Snake Run is one of the most fun things anyone can ever do.”

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