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Oso Skate Park Enters New Territory After Three Years Setting the Scene

A new beginning

Oso Skate Park
Oso Skate Park owners (from left) Phillip Gripper, Brett Coppedge, and Chris Hostetler. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Traversing the empty north-Charlotte warehouse that will soon be home to a number of local arts venues, Oso Skate Park co-founders Brett Coppedge and Phillip Gripper come to a space that will soon house Charlotte Art League. The remnants of a long-abandoned church still sit in the space, with three bright blue, velvet-carpeted steps leading up to a stage that looks like a set piece from the HBO series The Righteous Gemstones.

They’re trailed by three reps with Flywheel Group, which owns the large property at 4327 Raleigh St. and is spearheading the creation of this north-Charlotte arts and entertainment hub. One of the men tells Coppedge that the stage will be dismantled and discarded if nobody wants it, but Coppedge won’t hear of it. Once the carpet is stripped from the stage, he points out, it’s a perfect plaza-style stair set for a skate park, which he, Gripper and co-founder Chris Hostetler plan to build on 6,000 square feet of adjoining space in the warehouse.

“This is hilarious; we’ll use it,” Coppedge says as he hops up the three steps, his mind swirling with ideas. “You’ve already got the stairs so I don’t have to build them. We’ll turn this trash into treasure!”

Oso Skate Park
Brett Coppedge (right) and Phillip Gripper (second from right) check out a leftover stage they might turn into a plaza-style stair set. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

On Jan. 15, the Oso trio will close their original location at HUB 933 in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood and begin their move four miles north to Raleigh Street, where they will join Charlotte Art League, Aerial CLT, and Charlotte Film Society’s new three-screen art-house cinema, along with other tenants in a new campus that will anchor what Flywheel developers are calling the Trailhead District, located just north of the Sugar Creek Road light-rail station.

It’s a big expansion for Oso Skate Park, which opened its original location in November 2017, as the park will expand its indoor space from 4,500 square feet to 6,000, then add another 12,000 square feet of outdoor space in Phase 2.

The team will be a great fit in the campus, as the Oso space has never been solely about skating. The team has regularly hosted art shows and live music performances in their HUB 933 space, and looks forward to continuing to do so once it becomes safe again.

“Our goal was to make a positive impact in the community using skating as our conduit to do so,” Gripper says of the first three years at HUB 933. “So with Oso, we were able to have a space where people could come and have positive influence through physical activity. We also provide a space for art to be displayed and sold and for live music to be played for all ages and audiences. And so, in the time we’ve been open we’ve been able to connect with kids, we’ve been able to connect with families and adults alike, and just spread positivity as best we can through the walls that we have.”

We catch up with the Oso crew at their Belmont location on a Saturday morning as they prepare for the last Community Unity Day at the space. The team has partnered with outdoor adventure company Issa Vibes Adventures to host the monthly event since October 2018, gathering dozens of volunteers to make sandwiches for local homeless services organization Roof Above.

Charles Gbenyon of Issa Vibes Adventures loads sandwiches up for delivery to Roof Above. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

I ask each of the ownership group their favorite memory from the location that they’ll be vacating between Jan. 15-31, and the range of responses gives a glimpse at how varied the activities held in Oso Skate Park have been.

Coppedge looks back fondly on a specific show in 2018 that featured Venezuelan refugee rock group Zeta, during which the guys got to skate a portion of the park while the crowd danced around them.

Hostetler reminisces on popular art events like the annual Fried Chicken Art Party, but also on a broader scale, the feeling of watching a kid finally pull off a trick or drop-in on a quarter pipe for the first time — “after busting ass all day, finally sticking it.” Gripper will remember competitions like Queen City Kings, bringing people in from all over the country and watching them push themselves to land tricks they had never done before.

Oso Skate Park
A competition in Oso Skate Park’s original space in 2019. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“My experience, it’s been greater than what I had dreamed it could be. Just seeing the look on someone’s face when they do something for the first time like dropping in or even playing their first show,” says Gripper, who plays drums with local garage rockers Modern Primitives. “We’ve been able to facilitate people in all these ways, so to see the feeling of enjoyment and self-confidence that they gain in themselves from being able to do these things, it’s just amazing to be a helping part of that process.”

A new home wasn’t hard to find

As with most small businesses, the Oso team has struggled through the pandemic, closing for six months in 2020 and recently reopening to host a limited capacity of skaters. After the space was flooded in a November rain storm, the 12th such occurrence during their three-year stay according to the trio, they knew it was time to find a new spot.

While admitting that one of those occurrences was on them, the constant flooding mixed with the upcoming increase in rent made it unfeasible for them to stay.

“We’re very thankful to be in this space,” Gripper says of HUB 933, “because this is the first place that actually accepted us. Everywhere else did not want a skate park because of the riff raff; they were afraid of the crowd that we would bring. We’re very thankful to the owners of HUB 933, but at the same time, after three years, our roof still leaks … and after being closed for six months, hearing an increase in the lease rate is kind of a slap in the face, because they know that we don’t have savings, they know that even now we’re not seeing our full amount of business, so we’re literally barely hanging on.”

The move will also bring new expenses, and the team has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help with the build-out. On Jan. 24, Oso’s HUB 933 neighbors Catawba Brewing Company will partner with Sweet Lew’s BBQ to hold a barbecue fundraiser benefiting the skate park, while also donating $1 from each pour of its new High Sea Fruit Punch Imperial Smoothie Sour, to be released on Jan. 21.

The Oso Skate Park crew didn’t have to search long for their new space. In fact, they didn’t have to look at all. Fortuitously, they were contacted right about that same time by Jim Dukes, the new executive director at Charlotte Art League, the first tenant to sign on at Flywheel’s Trailhead campus.

Dukes regularly brings his son in to Oso to ride his scooter, and he had built a relationship with the team there. He suggested they should look into potentially moving into the Trailhead building, as there was still plenty of space for them. Dukes set up a meeting with Flywheel’s leadership, including president Tony Kuhn, and the synergy was instantaneous.

According to Kuhn, one of his designers had already suggested a skate park would make a great addition to the campus, so when Oso came calling, it was serendipitous. Kuhn’s nephew had attended a week-long camp at Oso while in town for the holidays in 2019, and he had visited the spot a couple times over that week, so he was aware of the vibes and the mission there.

“They’re just cool people, and they’re trying to do the right things, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Kuhn says. “Our development company is really about making a place, and these guys fit right into making places and community and that type of thing. We don’t want to do the next whatever just to make money, we want to build communities and build places, and so their work and ambition and their ideas all helped to make this great place.”

Oso Skate Park
Coppedge and Gripper talk plans with Tony Kuhn (center) and other Flywheel reps in the new space. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The learning curve is sharp for the Flywheel team, which has never overseen the construction of a skate park before.

Before coming across the old church stage, Coppedge and Kuhn went back and forth about a number of different details ranging from air conditioning and temperature control (a luxury Oso hasn’t enjoyed in its first three years) to where the new door will be (Coppedge has created 12 layouts for the new space so far and will have to create a 13th if the door is moved even a few feet from where it currently sits).

“Flow and dimensions are all different, materials are all different, roof planes and heights are all different and all that, so yes it’s a big learning curve,” Kuhn says, “but we’re really kind of asking them to solve a lot of those issues. Like, ‘Here’s the box that you have to deal with, design the best thing you can.’ Whatever we can do to help them build a cooler space, we’re going to say yes to.”

Big plans on campus

In the coming weeks, expect more announcements about additions to the Trailhead campus, including a local brewery, deli, and a major arts institution that’s set to claim the 150-seat black-box theater. Kuhn says the original goal wasn’t to create a hub for arts and entertainment, but it happened that way thanks to the connections that Dukes and the Charlotte Film Society team had.

“Everything’s been just kind of one foot in front of the other in building off each other, with Charlotte Art League and then just the arts community getting the word around,” Kuhn explains. “We haven’t even really marketed it for that, it just started when the Charlotte Film Society and Charlotte Art League were both doing it, then people they knew in the industry all kind of came together, and it filled up really quickly.”

For the team at Oso Skate Park, the first six months of 2021 will be spent building out Phase 1, the indoor portion of the park and a pro shop. Phase 2, the outdoor portion, will come sometime in 2022 or 2023, and will consist of a mix of street-style skating and concrete bowls.

With the Eastland DIY skate park at risk of being torn down, the team hopes their space can serve as a type of replacement, if needed, while continuing to cater to a spectrum of sports such as rollerblades, quads, bikes and scooters, as they always have.

“Over the last three years we’ve really asked everybody what they want, what they thought about the park. You really have to take that into consideration when you’re working on the layout. You have to appeal to all the crowds,” says Coppedge. “We hope that Eastland doesn’t get ripped down; it’s a staple of the community. Although we’re a skate park, [Eastland] needs to survive too in order for the community to grow. We want to be able to incorporate a lot of plaza-style obstacles like Eastland does, but also incorporate bowls and bigger ramps.”

Coppedge and Gripper contemplate their new space. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Flywheel designers have greenlit an 18-foot “mega-mini ramp,” which is still on the drawing board for Phase 2. The new space also offers up more room for bigger concerts, bigger parties, and bigger competitions, not to mention endless collaborative opportunities with the arts organizations that will share the same roof.

In terms of community service, there’s more opportunity for the Oso crew to increase their impact around Charlotte. Hostetler has already been in talks with multiple local schools about launching an after-school program at Oso, as well as an incentive-based “learn-to-earn” program that awards participating students for reaching educational and behavioral goals.

As with so much in the world, the new plans will all depend on how the world looks when they’re set to open Phase 1, which they hope to do in June or July.

“It’s all COVID-pending, because we don’t want to be a part of the spread,” says Gripper. “We want to keep everyone as safe as possible, so as soon as we’re able to, we’ll be able to host much larger and much better events.”

Gripper and Hostetler make sandwiches alongside other volunteers at the last Community Unity day inside the HUB 933 space. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Until then, they’ll be raising funds for the transition while dwelling on new ways to help turn the Trailhead campus into a vital institution for north Charlotte and beyond.

“We try to set ourselves apart as more than a skate park,” says Gripper. “We are an atmosphere. We are a place of learning and positivity … As we continue to be able to grow and more people find out about us, it’s going to be one of the things that really helps us to develop into a community staple for all of Charlotte, not just the neighborhood.”

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