BILLINGS — Nearly every time Jace Kelly, 16, has gone to the Downtown Skate Park in the last two years, his mother has been there, too, sitting on a lawn chair in the grass watching him skateboard.
Jace's mother, Amanda Kelly, is there to watch her son's talent but to also keep him safe. Her son has also had to step in to protect his mother while they are at the skate park.
“My 16-year-old son is having to protect me down at the skate park. No other sport do you play that you have to look up in the stands and worry about your mom being safe. But here, he does,” Amanda said.
Jace met both Michael Wilson and Sullivan Ulrich at the skate park. Now, the three are great friends and share many similar experiences while at the skate park.
“There's a lot of hard drugs, lots of fights,” Wilson said.
Ulrich spoke about a frightening experience of a shooting that happened across the street from the park while he was skating alone.
“My board landed on its side, so it was really loud, but at the same time my board hit the ground, somebody shot the window of the House of Fades Barber Shop,” he said.
Billings resident Jonathan Ryan Wright said that one of his first experiences at the skate park was not a good one.
“I was here for less than 15 minutes, and I saw a guy get stabbed,” Wright said.
Wright offers free meals monthly to anyone in need and one of his meal days was at the Downtown Skate Park. It was at this time that skaters approached Wright about the issues the park was facing.
Wright decided it was time to do something to try to better the location.
“There’s something that needs to be done here because the kids just aren’t safe,” Wright said. “We’re actually getting ready to try to fence the whole thing in. Get cameras out here and get lights.”
Wright went to Billings Parks and Recreation about two months ago to get approval to update the skate park area. Mike Pigg, the director of the Billings Parks and Recreation Department, said he was thrilled about the idea.
“We’ve tried everything we can think of to bring skate park around to make it a safe place, to make it an inviting atmosphere, and we’re at our wits' end. Our police officers come through a number of times a day. Our staff does all we can," Pigg said. "It just is not a very hospitable place, and so when they came with their ideas, we were all in. It didn’t take much convincing.”
Pigg said the parks department has no money in their budget to do the improvements, but will help when they can with the installation of the fence, lighting and cameras.
Wright is fundraising for the project and is working with the non-profit Partners for Parks Foundation to collect donations. He also said there are businesses in town who have already offered to help with the fence and cameras. Wright is hoping to start adding an iron fence around the park in the next few months, as long as the weather doesn't get in the way.
“We’re trying to get it done as quickly as possible, especially while we’ve got traction,” Wright said.
Amanda, Jace and his friends are all hopeful this project will help improve the safety of the skate park.
“I’m super excited. You know, I’ve sat down here, I’ve seen a lot and I really hope it's going to drive out some of the issues that we’re having,” Amanda said.
Wilson said it was nice to feel as though someone is trying to better the area that he enjoys spending time in.
“People talk about it a lot, but nothing ever gets done. It finally kind of seems like something actually is happening now, which is super cool,” he said.