Catching air in Tacoma

Rain usually means extra business for Tacoma Skate. But there was another reason for the larger than usual turnout on a recent, Sunday: March Madness. Not the NCAA basketball variety. Organizers at the new, 5,000-square-foot facility had co-opted the name for their invitational skateboarding competition and the unveiling of their newly finished skating bowl.

The rumble of dozens of wheels on wood filled the warehouse as skaters – mostly teenage boys – rolled past splashy graffiti murals, attempting Miller flips, rail grinding and other stunts as clustered parents looked on from the sidelines.

Rob Barker was among the spectators, having caught the skating bug himself back in ’60s.

“It’s changed so much, it’s incredible,” he said, a big grin creasing his shaggy beard. “We weren’t grinding on rails and doing jumps. We thought it was pretty good just to try to ride the front of your board. Not in my prime could I dream of doing things like this.”

Eventually, things got even louder as local punk bands rotated onto a small stage set up in one corner. And during cuter and quieter moments, the “tater tots” (slang for the half-pint skaters) scooted around on boards half their size as emcee Samwise Sutter egged them on.

“On a sunny day, there’s nobody here,” remarked venue owner John Buffler. “The next day, it’s jammed. Events like this definitely help get the word out.”

And the word has been getting out. Since it opened in December, Tacoma Skate – in Tacoma’s Nalley Valley at 1912 Center St. – has gradually become the epicenter of the local skate scene. It’s where hardcore skaters go to document their flashiest tricks and younger kids learn how to become tomorrow’s online video stars.

“The younger kids, they get better seeing people doing gnarlier stuff,” said Mike Ellis, 20, a local skate star sponsored by Marrada Skateboards. “That’s kind of how I got good fast – skateboarding with top-notch guys.”

“It’s kind of like a training center, because if you come here, master the skills, you’re gonna take it to the streets,” said Zach Childs, 19, who started volunteering at Tacoma Skate last fall but has since been dubbed intern. (Perks: A front door key for after hours.)

Others consider Tacoma Skate a haven from the usual hassles and stigma associated with skateboarding.

“When we were younger, we didn’t have nothin’– curbs in front of our houses; just poachin’ spots anywhere we could,” recalled Toney Robinson, a 28-year-old volunteer who started skating in high school.

“Security guards hated us,” Robinson said. “Our moms got called a lot. (We were) hassled by police a lot in the earlier days. You’d see ‘no skateboarding’ plastered everywhere. And if a cop comes up and sees you, you get trespassing tickets.”

Ellis thinks skaters get a bad rap. But he admits there is some basis for the stigma, much rooted in property damage.

“You see this nice marble ledge, and they probably spent a (huge) amount of money to build,” he said. “We’ll come there and skate it till it’s broken. Everybody sees it as just a bench and we see it as the sickest thing ever. We wanna skate it.”

Ellis added, “That’s why this place is good, because if you destroy it, we can rebuild it instead of going out and destroying property.”

Aside from getting chased from parking lots and school yards, there’s another familiar big obstacle to skating in this part of the country – namely, the weather.

“On rainy days like this, I can come skate,” said William Evans, 12, a regular whose brother got him into skateboarding four years ago.

“I would have guessed when I moved here that there would have been way more indoor skate parks in the rainiest part of the country,” mused Childs, who moved here from Michigan last fall. “There’s only three now in this part of Washington.”

Buffler, 44, only considered adding to that tally after finding himself suddenly jobless last year. “I was working a contract job for several years and got laid off,” he explained.

“My son and I had been skateboarding all over the region. ... It was something I was interested in, something he was real interested in and that’s where it all sort of stems from.”

“He always wanted a business, like a restaurant – something,” added 14-year-old son, Dylan. “It just ended up being a skateboard shop.”

Buffler found the warehouse space – previously occupied by Wiggins Custom Woodworks – in November and quickly set about assembling his construction crew.

“There was a lot of effort, a lot of volunteers – a lot of people that just live to skateboard (who) threw their heart and soul into this,” Buffler said. “It’s just unbelievable how much energy and heart went into this thing, and it’s extremely appreciated.”

“It was a clear palette. There was nothing in here,” said John Cabral, a member of Buffler’s crew. “I started talking to my skateboarding buddies, the people who know how a skate park flows and everything. Once I got them on the phone within a week and a half, it started really rolling.”

A lot of building material was donated.

“You’d be amazed how many people just say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a skate park going on. I’ve got a ramp in my backyard,’ ” Cabral said. “There’s a lot of community effort that had a lot of interest to make this thing happen and work out.”

Some donations contributed to unique features. Cabral is especially proud of “the Taco,” an arched rail skaters grind on.

“Nobody has ever seen a Taco like this,” he boasted. “Some of these features, they don’t exist in other skate parks. This thing is completely unheard of. We made it with trampoline framing. We were just screwing around one day.”

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389