Kyle Machan raised a lot of eyebrows 10 years ago when he decided to open a skateboard shop in Swan River.
A 19-year-old kid still living with his parents who spent all his free time skateboarding didn’t seem a likely candidate for business success, especially selling skateboards in a remote agricultural service centre with a declining population and a rising median age.
What the skeptics could not foresee was how Machan’s passion would tap into an unrealized need for youth recreation in the community of 3,900. Within a few years, Swan River was overrun with skateboarders and community groups were rallying around a plan to build a new $400,000 skateboard park.
He told the recent Take the Leap conference in Dauphin that his first year in business was tough. He stocked mostly core skateboard brands, unknown outside skateboarding circles, and that year made only $18,000 in profit.
But undaunted, he persisted, believing his shop would cultivate what he sensed was a growing interest in the sport.
“For me there was nothing more fun than skateboarding,” he says. “Before I was married that was all I did. I woke up, sat at that shop, and spent all night skateboarding with whoever wanted to skateboard. The next day the same thing. That didn’t make me a lot of money but it did get people excited (to skate).”
Over time Machan started selling more recognizable brands and lifestyle products, at the urging of his wife. As skateboarding became more mainstream, his customer base grew too.
After several years in business, as he gained the trust of people in Swan River and local interest in skateboarding grew, he decided it was time for a new park.
The existing park was built in a tennis court near the school. The wood structures were starting to rot and fall apart. Kids had spilled into public areas, in front of businesses and high-traffic areas, because the temporary park couldn’t contain the swelling numbers.
Machan organized a group called the Skateboard Union that would raise money to build the park. He invited adults to get on board and several parents joined.
“I was old enough and respected enough as an adult, and not a kid anymore, that people could put some faith in me to lead it,” he said.
The core group of people in the group had solid reputations in the community — a local credit union worker, a postmistress in the nearby community of Durban, and social worker Byron Fried.
Fried’s son, in high school at the time, is an avid skateboarder. He was having trouble finding rails to ride so a couple of times a year he and some other kids would tour around the province — using the facilities in other small towns.
They stopped in Dauphin, which had a park in their curling rink in the summer, drove to Ste. Rose, and even went as far as ‘The Forks’ in Winnipeg.
“So we thought we’ve gotta get something going in our backyard if we can,” said Fried.
The group set to work applying for grants. Machan went to local service clubs asking for money.
Support poured in. They got funding from the provincial government, different local organizations, individual residents, and from the town of Swan River itself.
“One thing I’ll say about the park is that it was a real community effort,” said Fried. “The town really did partner with us and was one of our main partners in the end.”
The group raised close to $400,000 and managed to land a British Columbia-based landscape architect named Mark van der Zalm who had designed other well-known parks, including the Chuck Bailey youth park, the first covered outdoor park in Canada, to design the park.
Van der Zalm’s grandmother lived in Swan River.
Suspense built as the park began construction that winter. Bad weather, including several snowstorms, meant the workers had to set up a tent, covering any signs of progress.
“We really couldn’t see much,” recalled Fried. “They kept the tent up for quite a long time and then towards the end they took it down.”
“The kids couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Today the park is bustling and more than just skateboarders use the space. BMX bikers tear up and down the bowl. Parents bring their kids, teenagers come with their friends and even the nursery school sometimes brings tots to run up and down the ramps.
Heather Nielsen, the chamber of commerce president for Swan River, credits Machan for its success.
“He created his market. He got together a group of individuals to get a skateboard park started. He went against all the naysayers and today it’s one of the busiest places in town.”
“One thing I’ll say about the park is that it was a real community effort.”