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Talent Scouts: A new business gives aspiring skateboarders a safe haven 

click to enlarge Jeremy Hulsey - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Jeremy Hulsey

Nate is balancing his board on the slim, rubber-coated edge of a wooden skate ramp. If he leans too far back, he’ll fall on the seat of his pants; too far forward and he’ll drop clumsily off the platform. But Nate’s too good for that. He lingers there for a second, surveying the empty skate park, then abruptly swivels the head of the board, tips downward and flies down the curved incline. Speeding across the floor, he glides effortlessly over a wooden island and ascends the opposite ramp, where he whirls around and stands still, gazing again, holding the lip of his board.

Nate is 10 years old. He’s been skateboarding for just two months — one of many young prodigies who have entered the sport through the doors of Talent Skatepark and Shop on Williston Road in South Burlington. Talent is a hip — not to mention inexpensive — alternative to mainstream sports and arcades, and it just might become one of the most popular after-school programs in town. One mother described the company as “much cheaper than daycare” — which is how many parents have begun to use the facility: it’s a place to drop off their kids during the day.

Talent’s doors have only been open since December 22 and already the intrepid business hosts more than 50 teens and young adults on rainy weekends. It’s been less crowded on sunny weekdays, but when school lets out, the ramps are likely to be rocking.

Talent is the brainchild of Hannah Schwartz and David Wood, the soon-to-be married couple who met as skateboarders and now provide a new, indoor locus for the Burlington area boarding community. Originally from Colchester, Schwartz has been boarding since her high school days in the late ’80s — though she modestly still calls herself a beginner. For several years Schwartz was general manager for The B Side in downtown Burlington. Through the ’90s she enthusiastically advocated for the city to build what eventually became the Waterfront Skate Park.

“It was like 10 years sitting through meetings, trying to get [the City Council] to build it,” Schwartz recalls.

When the idea was finally approved, Wood led the design and construction of the skate park. A hard-core boarder during his adolescence in Massachusetts, Wood also managed a skate store through college, and later helped build a skate park in Shirley, Mass. In 1999, his newly established company, Custom Skatepark Development, was hired to help build the Burton factory ramp. It was then that he met Schwartz, perhaps the only woman in Vermont whose skateboarding zeal matches his.

With these backgrounds, both were sympathetic to the local demand for a public indoor ramp. “People were like, dude, you have to build a skate park,” says Wood. “And I was like, I don’t have any money for that.”

But the success of the Burton and Waterfront projects gave him more cred and more confidence. Wood and Schwartz put the wheels in motion last June, working closely with a counselor from the Small Business Development Center. They invested nearly all of the profits Wood had made through his company and took out a bank loan. With his technical experience and Schwartz’s business sense, Talent emerged five months later, just in time for the holiday season. Throughout the winter, the skate park won a supportive audience of young boarders and their relieved parents. “They’re so well organized. My son loves them. I’ve even thought about doing the class myself,” one mom attests.

Such enthusiasm is good for the business. And it spells a victory for a community still fighting the popular image of boarders as rebellious slackers and skate parks as veritable halfway houses for dropouts and small-scale drug traffickers. There may be some truth to this last assumption — after all, where are illicit drugs not sold? But Talent defies the stereotype.

From its inception, Schwartz and Wood declared a zero-tolerance policy — if they spot a single beer can or joint, the possessor is exiled forever. Other rules: No glass is allowed, and all boarders must wear helmets, even if the room isn’t crowded. Schedules are strictly enforced, and kids under 17 must have both signed release forms from their parents and pads for their knees and elbows.

The store section is spacious, well-lit and immaculately clean; racks of well-pressed jeans and sweatshirts hang over vacuumed carpets. Next to the cash register hang dozens of skating helmets. Beyond that, a glass door leads to Talent’s voluminous gymnasium. The park includes the requisite halfpipe, several independent ramps and a so-called “sink,” which resembles an unfilled swimming pool. Surfaces are a little scuffed by hard-rolling wheels, but the park is washed with bright fluorescent light, which should keep it looking new for years to come.

As teachers and monitors, Wood and Schwartz seem to have natural parental instincts, even though both are just 29. Wood is tall, eloquent and well-organized, a portrait of amiable authority. Schwartz is soft-spoken, but her passion for boarding is unmistakable. They’re forever talking about “the kids.”

“The kids really, really need this place,” says Schwartz. When she mentions the art hanging on the store walls — an exhibit from locals that changes monthly — she adds, “It’s just to let the kids know there’s more to life than logos.”

Recently Talent hosted six professional skateboarders from California, including big-namers Mark Appleyard, Colt Cannon and Caswell Barry. The demo was all-out performance — no actual teaching was involved — but wide-eyed visitors could watch some of the best moves in the biz as local DJ A-Dog spun discs in the background. For safety’s sake, Schwartz and Wood built plywood barricades around the park.

Every Saturday morning, the couple gives demonstrations, teaching beginners to do what many of us consider impossible: Stand on a board with wheels. Other days, visitors pay $10 for four hours on the ramps. Children as young as 8 might strap on inline skates — a.k.a. Rollerblades — while 12-year-olds try their first boards.

Many parents have caught the bug, too, trying to pull off tricks beside their pubescent children. Young women turn up for Talent’s monthly Girls’ Night. “One girl showed up with her boyfriend,” says Schwartz, chuckling. “I made him sit in the car.”

While the overall marks are high for Talent, the skate park is not without its critics. The building once housed Breakers Billiards, and their landlord, John Jager, was skeptical about such a radically different business. “They were like, you wanna build a skate park here? We were thinking it could be a nightclub or something,’” Wood recalls.

That fantasy was rejected, but it still took a bit of cajoling to get Talent the green light. Jager asked for a focused business plan and precise schematics. Once the park appeared failsafe, he gave them permission to renovate.

The landlord wasn’t the only one with misgivings. Just a few weeks ago, the kids were “bummed out,” says Schwartz, when a teacher at Williston Central High School reportedly lambasted the park, suggesting it was a bad influence on teens. Schwartz and Wood were outraged and complained to the school’s administration. To their knowledge, no such comments have been made since.

But a little slander can’t hurt such a popular spot — it might even help. “The parents are on our side,” says Wood confidently. He and Schwartz can probably expect a deluge of newcomers this summer, both at Talent and at the Burlington Skate Park, where they will teach an outdoor skate course. If Nate’s two-month-old prowess is any indication, the couple has proved successful at safely teaching kids how to ride like pros.

Skateboarding is “a really progressive scene in Burlington,” Wood notes, watching Nate slide down the ramp a second time. “Everyone’s trying to get better. Everyone supports each other.”

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