Board Game

The region’s only indoor skateboard and snowboard park is a family affair

by Janet Essman Franz

talent_leadDavid and Hannah Deene Wood met when he was building a half-pipe behind Burton Snowboards and she was managing the B-Side. Together, they launched Talent Skatepark in South Burlington as a safe place for young people to learn and enjoy the sport.

He was a cool skateboarder who loved to build things. She was a bubbly child with a penchant for helping others through recreation. He became a sought-after designer of skateboard parks, while she became immersed in the skateboard/snowboard counterculture.

Clearly, Hannah Deene Wood and David Wood, both 38, are well matched. Husband and wife, they came of age on skate- and snowboards as these sports became mainstream. Today, they make their living encouraging young Vermonters to skate and ride for fun, exercise, and friendship at Talent Skatepark, the indoor facility they founded in South Burlington.

Their business is part recreation center and part retail shop. The first things one sees upon entering the front door are ramps — lots of them, behind the glass observation windows. Children, too — lots of them — practicing pushes and turns on skateboards, inline skates, scooters, or bicycles. Beyond the ramps, they roll and flip in a large basin and ride rails and stairs in an urban-inspired landscape designed by David.

Past the observation windows, space opens to reveal a large retail shop where colorful boards and boots line the walls, and skateboard and snowboard apparel fills floor racks. Weekends and after school, Talent hums with young people trying on helmets and shoes, waiting for their skate sessions, or talking about recent adventures on snow. Parents are there, too, dropping off teens or watching children work on their skills.

“We try to keep the parents happy so they’ll bring their kids here,” says Hannah. “We run it like it’s a family, by knowing the kids’ names, what they eat, their allergies, and needs. We always have the same staff and parents know them.”

Formerly Hannah Deene Schwartz, she lived in Vermont from age 1, when her father, an IBM engineer, transferred to Essex Junction from Virginia. Along with two younger sisters, she grew up in Colchester and attended Colchester High School. She swam competitively from kindergarten through high school and taught swimming for the Burlington Department of Parks and Recreation. As a teenager she skateboarded in empty parking lots with friends and hosted the first skateboard competition at Colchester High. Participating in snow sports was a favorite family pastime.

“I started skiing between my dad’s legs at Cochran’s in Richmond,” she says.

Hannah began snowboarding in high school and earned lift ticket money by working at the B-Side, the former Frisbee/skateboard/snowboard store in Burlington. “I made myself available for events, and when pros came to town I made sure things were organized, helped people place orders. Anything that needed to get done, I did it, happily,” she says.

“It kept me hand-in-hand with any snowboard and skateboard things that were happening. That’s where all my friends hung out, and just who I was.” While she dreamed of a career in social work, her calling was in recreation and retail. Eventually, she found a way to combine all three.

Meanwhile, in Shirley, Mass., David was becoming skilled at creating ramps and riding on them. As a child he thrived on building with Erector Sets and Lego toys, and skateboarding from age 13. With his father, a high school science teacher, he gathered scrap materials from construction sites to build a half-pipe in his backyard. “All the kids came; it was the hangout,” he says, and adds that building the backyard ramp was as much fun as riding on it.

At 15 he became a carpenter, framing condominiums for a builder. He studied construction technology at Fitchburg State College, graduating in 1997. Throughout college he worked at Eastern Boarder skate shop. He helped build and managed the shop’s third location in Worcester, Mass., remaining manager until 2000.

Bringing skateboarding to the people became David’s specialty. He built portable ramps to host demonstrations off-site. The events brought people into the Worcester store and put him in the limelight in the growing world of skateboarding.

“Skateboarding had become popular,” he says. “People would come into the shop and say, ‘Our town wants a skate park. Who can build it?’” In 1996 he donated time and borrowed tools from his grandfather and uncle to build a municipal skate park for Holden, Mass. “I figured it would be good for business; plus, I wanted to be part of it.”

After building the Holden facility, “there was a lot of interest in a lot of towns,” he says. “I slowly started charging more money and learned how to bid jobs and get through the red tape on municipal projects. Any town that wanted to build a skate park, I wanted to build it for them.”

For the next six years, David built parks throughout the Northeast. He formalized his company in 1999, named it Custom Skatepark Development, and hired help. That year, Burton Snowboards hired his company to build a half-pipe behind its Burlington headquarters. That’s when he met Hannah.

She had recently become general manager of the B-Side, after taking a circuitous route to that position. She had begun college studying education, first at SUNY Plattsburgh and then at the University of Vermont, with an eye toward working with underprivileged children.

“My mother said I was too emotional to work in that field,” she recalls. “I taught one semester at Lawrence Barnes [Elementary School] and proved my mother correct. I saw kids with nothing and wanted to take them home and give them breakfast. I have an innate need to take care of people.”

She sought advice from her former parks and recreation boss, who suggested switching majors from education to recreation and tourism in UVM’s school of natural resources. In a recreation setting, Hannah recalls, “Everyone was having a good time. Kids would talk to me like I was their friend instead of a teacher ... but I could still make an impact.”

After graduating in 1995 she managed group tours for Vermont Teddy Bear Co. and, in 1997, became marketing manager for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. While she loved the tourism industry, the constant travel grew tiresome; so when the B-Side owners asked her to be general manager, she jumped at the chance.

“The job was doing everything I loved — being in the snowboard and skateboard worlds year-round. We had a huge retail shop and invested heavily in women’s apparel. It was awesome,” she says.

When David came to Burlington on the Burton project, they became fast friends. He returned the following summer to build Burlington’s municipal skate park. “I never left,” he says. In June 2001 they began planning a business venture to fill Vermont’s need for indoor recreation. They married in 2002.

“The kids in Burlington would skate all summer and then they would have nothing to do,” says Hannah. “They couldn’t get a ride to the mountains to snowboard, and they would get into trouble. You could see the drug use skyrocket. People kept saying someone should build an indoor skatepark. We started writing a business plan and looking at buildings.”

The Small Business Development Corp. helped them secure a loan. David says Hannah came up with the name, Talent Skatepark, “because it takes talent to skateboard.” They chose an empty site on Williston Road that formerly housed a billiards hall, closed on the loan in October 2001, and renovated it over the next couple of months.

Through September, David had continued building skateparks around the region. “I built eight skateparks that summer all over New England, including Barre, Vermont,” he recalls.

Talent’s December 2001 launch was much anticipated by the community, and a crowd came on opening day. “The paint was wet on the ramps and everyone’s wheels turned blue,” says Hannah.

Talent quickly became known as a healthy hangout for youths.

“It’s a great atmosphere for kids to exercise and have fun,” says Dean Melen, a parent and counselor at Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington. “They provide a safe place for children to go and enjoy skating and be under the care of some amazing people.”

Melen’s children were among the first to patronize Talent and became confident skate- and snowboarders. He encourages Chamberlin students to skateboard and arranged for Talent to provide scholarships for children whose families cannot afford skating fees. “Hannah has reached out to many kids in the community,” he says. “She gets to know and care for them and develops a personal relationship with children and their families.”

The only indoor skateboard park in the region, Talent draws customers from throughout Vermont and upstate New York. Weekends are busy and school vacation camps sell out. Like many recreational facilities, however, Talent’s business has slowed with the economic downturn.

The rise of Internet shopping also created a challenge. “Ten years ago if someone wanted something and we didn’t have it, they would buy something close to it. Now they just go on the Internet and buy what they want.”

To keep customers coming in person, David strives to have a wide assortment of products and stay current with trends. He looks at retail reports more thoroughly and orders fewer items. He updates the park frequently to keep skaters interested.

“Every six months I pick a small portion to modify or improve to keep it interesting, and add new features,” he says.

Staying flexible and catering to a younger crowd have been key to the Woods’ success. “We wrote our business plan thinking we were selling to late teenagers to early-20-year-olds. We didn’t think we’d have such a young market,” says Hannah.

With two daughters ages 5 and 3, family and work fill their days. Hannah makes time for Zumba fitness, for which she recently became a certified instructor, and they both enjoy snowboarding and skateboarding.

Building skateparks for others has taken a backseat for David. “Talent and my family keep me busy enough,” he says. “However, if it’s a powder day, I go to the mountain and do my work later.” •