In Norfolk (population 24,424), a CDBG-funded project is attracting visitors from throughout the Midwest.
If you build it, they will come. Ramps and half-pipes included.
“The entire first week of the grand opening, we were flooded with skaters from all over the state,” said Norfolk native Anthony Thompson. Thompson is referring to the recently completed Norfolk Skate Park, which his nonprofit 501(c)3, Good Life Action Sports, worked for five years to bring to fruition, in collaboration with the City, and with support from a $425,000 CDBG Tourism Development grant.
It was 2015 when Thompson and a group of fellow avid skaters first approached Norfolk City Council for help revamping Miracle Skate Park — a crumbling local mecca with a surprising connection to the town’s past.
“Norfolk is the birthplace of Johnny Carson, and one of his last personal contributions to the city was $30,000 to build our original skate park,” Thompson said.
Seeing the project for more than face value, councilmembers — including present-day Mayor Josh Moenning — embraced the idea with enthusiastic support. “We really focus on developing quality of life here in Norfolk,” Moenning said. “We consider it a strategy for economic development and long-term growth. It’s increasingly important that communities our size can be competitive in what they have to offer. The base level of amenities that make a community an attractive place to live is what’s going to propel growth into the future.”
After receiving a pledge of $125,000 from the City, Thompson and his group formed a nonprofit, holding local skate demos, selling t-shirts and promoting community awareness to raise the necessary funds. The Carson Foundation donated an additional $5,000 in support of the burgeoning project.
“This park really honors Johnny’s legacy in Norfolk as much as anything,” Thompson said.
Meanwhile, the community and the nonprofit envisioned multiple improvements over the previous design, including building the park out of concrete to make it
more resilient to harsh Nebraska winters, adding restrooms and erecting bleachers to accommodate local and out-of-town spectators.
Project leaders also made sure the new skate park would be available for anyone to enjoy.
“There aren’t nearly enough sports facilities that are designed to accommodate people with unique mobility needs,” Thompson said. “Sports like wheelchair motocross are exploding in popularity, and we wanted to be able to provide that option for the users of our facility.”
Equipped with a vision, the partnership applied for a CDBG Tourism Development grant through the State of Nebraska.
“Ultimately, this project, as well as others in Norfolk, probably couldn’t have happened without CDBG assistance,” Moenning said. “We certainly recognize the tremendous value of the program in our community.”
After a competitive bidding process, the City was able to land California-based Spohn Ranch — the nation’s oldest and best-known designer of skate parks, with
ties to household names like Vans and Tony Hawk — to draw up blueprints.
“These guys are the best of the best,” Thompson said. “We were pretty psyched to be building literally a world-class skate park right here in Norfolk, Nebraska.”
When the park celebrated its grand opening in July 2020, some skateboarders and BMXers had traveled hundreds of miles just to catch some air on the latest Spohn Ranch creation.
“I met a van full of skaters all the way from Michigan who said they try to hit every Spohn Ranch park in the country,” Thompson said. “For non-skaters, I like to compare it to golf; golfers love to travel to different courses, and they want to experience the best.”
Now, with spring approaching, the park is about to see its first full season of use — and Good Life Action Sports has no shortage of plans to bring in users and spectators from across the region.
“We have ideas in the works for local, state and regional competitions,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to build something much larger than the state of Nebraska has ever seen in terms of action sports.”
Above all, Thompson says he and his group are focused on the positive impacts the park can offer the community.
“Skating and wheeled action sports are more popular every day, and we have an opportunity not only to attract people to Norfolk, but to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said, referring for example to slated wheelchair-focused events and a planned youth mentoring and outreach program. “It’s a way to reach out to the community and make a difference in people’s lives, through skateboarding.”