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Alchemy Skateboarding aims to turn four wheels and a deck into a better Tacoma

VIDEO: Alchemy Indoor - Turning skateboarding into community gold

A nonprofit group is bringing skate classes, camps, community events, leadership training and a brand-new indoor park to Tacoma.
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A nonprofit group is bringing skate classes, camps, community events, leadership training and a brand-new indoor park to Tacoma.

If you’re a skater, you’ll know that skateboarding isn’t magic. You try, you fall. You try, you fall. Then you finally get the trick — and try a new one, and fall again.

It’s a sport that’s seen as subversive, yet takes courage, creativity and persistence — exactly the qualities most of us want in young people.

Which is why a young Tacoma nonprofit called Alchemy Skateboarding is bringing skate classes, camps, community events, leadership training and a brand-new indoor park to Tacoma with the goal of changing something seen as undesirable into something that changes Tacoma for the better.

“The science of alchemy was about seeing the value in things where others would not,” explains Alchemy executive director Ben Warner. “(There’s a) negative stigma around the skate community, which is mostly untrue ... (and) there are around 8,000 skateboarders in the greater Tacoma area. Why is such a large population underutilized? Skaters can bring life into cities ... to solve issues like city flow, diversity, education, health and fitness.”

Down at Alchemy Indoor, it doesn’t immediately look like Tacoma’s problems are being solved. At the small indoor park, tucked away behind Grit City Grindhouse skateshop on South Seventh Street downtown, a handful of boys lounge around the doorway. A couple more are inside, focused intently as they work on grinds, slides and kick flips on the flat street section; and 50-50s and 360s on the smooth halfpipe. It’s a sunny day, so most skaters are out at the park rather than paying $7 to skate inside.

But as soon as the fall rains hit, Alchemy Indoor will prove its value: a place to practice a sport that’s near-impossible to do outside in the Northwest for five months of the year. It’s the only indoor skate park in the South Sound, and that in itself is gold for the skate community, particularly as it comes with comfy sofas, music, a skateshop next door and a setup of ramps and obstacles that changes every couple of weeks.

But the real value in Alchemy is in the kids lounging by the door. Through a program of camps, school physical education classes, pop-up community events and leadership training, Alchemy has begun to create a community of skaters that helps younger kids, engages with city leaders and gives back to the community, as well as keeping themselves on the right track.

The idea for Alchemy began in 2011 after Warner returned from a 3,000-mile longboarding trek across the country for the Boys and Girls Clubs. Fresh from earning two University of Washington Tacoma degrees focusing on interplay between cultures, the Lakewood native helped organize the first Go Skate Day event, where Tacoma’s Tollefson Plaza is filled with ramps, jumps and clinics for learners.

“I found that 56 percent of the kids attending Go Skate Day had dropped out of school,” Warner said.

8,000 The number of skateboarders in greater Tacoma

56 Percentage of skaters at the first Go Skate Day had dropped out of school

He also wondered why Tollefson, so barren of life most days, was barred to skateboarders; why skateparks were so often pushed to the edges of communities and not protected or maintained; why skateboarding was seen as damaging despite there being far more hospitalizations and deaths from cheerleading and football?

“The answer is tribalism,” he says. “People don’t recognize those different to themselves. There’s no connection to schools or mentor programs, so there’s a disconnect between that youth and the rest of society.”

So Alchemy began as a way to connect those dots. At first involving a number of older skaters, it has coalesced into a trio of Warner, who’s paid full time, and education programmer Taylor Woodruff and operating officer Kaitlan Ohler, paid part time. A 501(c)3 nonprofit since summer 2014, Alchemy has a yearly budget of $150,000 (mostly from grants), and a board that speaks volumes about the connection between skaters and broader Tacoma. The board includes City Councilman Marty Campbell, UWT nonprofit studies lecturer Stephan DeTray, Tacoma Schools police liaison officer Bryce Clother, an attorney, a businessman and the executive director of the Safe Streets Campaign. Alchemy’s also looking to partner with local skate shops, beginning with Grit City Grindhouse and DB Skimboards, and to increase private donors.

For the last five years they’ve been hosting Go Skate Day, which sees more and more participants of all ages and types, and recently succeeded in getting skating allowed year-round at Tollefson. For two semesters now, they’ve taught skateboarding as a PE class at Tacoma’s School of the Arts and Science and Math Institute, blending skate instruction with physical fitness, ramp and board construction, graphic design and urban planning. This summer they brought ramps, boards, helmets and a raft of youth volunteers to create pop-up skate parks at community events such as Downtown to Defiance and Spaceworks’ fifth anniversary party. And they partnered with MetroParks Tacoma to offer skate camps at parks for the first time, using their indoor park as a wet-weather backup.

More camps will come during winter break, and Warner and his team are looking at offering lessons and rentals at the park, as well as extended hours once the wet weather starts in earnest. They’re even working on bringing PE skating to other Tacoma schools, although the $2 million liability coverage is an obstacle.

“Every day’s a good day if I can come to Alchemy,” says Jacob Willcox, a junior at SOTA who volunteers three hours each Sunday taking money at the door, and also does his homework there. “I see skating as a kind of therapy. If I’m angry or upset, I’m a better person after I skate.”

Willcox also sees huge value in a nonprofit that both educates and offers a safe space.

“There’s not one kind of person who skates,” he says. “There’s a big stereotype, and there are definitely jerks who skate and destroy the community. But there’s also people like Ben and Taylor who restore it.”

“It shows the community the civil side of skateboarders,” agrees Bailey Walker, a senior at Puyallup High School who’s logged some 200-plus hours with Alchemy at camps and events. “It takes away the stigma that we’re criminals. It helps basically everybody.”

It’s teens like Walker and Willcox that Warner has in mind with Alchemy’s other new program: a youth advocacy team. Turning the traditional gear sponsorship model on its head, Warner intends to support youth skaters with the opportunity to learn job skills, to volunteer and to meet with city council to address issues of skateable areas and ways to improve the city — which in turn will ensure that youth skaters are supported rather than marginalized.

Most of all, though, Alchemy seeks to encourage those qualities that many skaters already have: creativity, persistence and the willingness to help.

“Skateboarding is a universal language,” Warner says. “The invitation to play is irresistible if communicated well ... and play breaks down cultural bias.”

“(What you learn from skating is) the importance of passion, of believing in yourself,” says Woodruff. “You learn determination, because with skating it’s not if you fall, it’s when you fall. Learning through something where you have to fail to succeed, embracing that idea that you get better through failure — is huge.”

And if Alchemy achieves its goals, Warner says, Tacoma itself will become better.

“A culture of inclusion is what I’d like to see,” he says. “We have everything we need in Tacoma. We just need to connect the dots.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

@rose_ponnekanti

SKATE WITH ALCHEMY

Indoor park: Behind Grit City Grindhouse, 311 S. Seventh St., Tacoma.

Hours: Open noon-8 p.m. Sundays, 4-8 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, beginning in November.

Cost: $7 adults, $5 children.

Camps: Held in partnership with MetroParks Tacoma during summer and winter breaks, check metroparkstacoma.org.

Classes: Currently offered at Tacoma’s School of the Arts and Science and Math Institute. Public lessons and parties available starting in November.

Events: Go Skate Day every August in Tollefson Plaza and pop-up skate parks at community events.

Information: alchemyskateboarding.org.

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