Friends, Local Lawmakers: Name Skate Park for Georgie Tsushima

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Georgie Tsushima outside FLC Skate Shop in Ames' Campustown. Photo: Courtesy of Suhaib Tawil

For the second time in as many months, dozens packed City Hall’s council chambers Thursday afternoon to request that the Parks and Recreation Commission support naming the unnamed Sixth Street skate park in memory of Georgie Tsushima, the Ames High School graduate and widely known skateboarder who died tragically last July at the age of 26, the night after opening Campustown’s FLC Skateshop.

Prompted by the request, the city drafted a proposal (PDF) to establish a parks naming policy that commissioners said they had been unaware didn’t already exist. Parks and Recreation Director Keith Abraham unveiled the proposal at the commission’s monthly meeting in February. Much to the consternation of many of Tsushima’s supporters, it included a stipulation — which could be waived at the City Council’s discretion — requiring a three-year waiting period following the death of an “outstanding individual” before a parks and rec facility could be named after that person. No such waiting period would apply for big-money donors, although they more typically provide the funding for new facilities as opposed to attempting to have existing one named (or renamed) after them.

Makenzie Heddens, an Iowa State University employee who used to skate with Tsushima, argued that the commission should consider the request to name the park after him before implementing a broader policy. The proposed policy’s language, she said, made her and other proponents of naming the skate park for Tsushima feel targeted, as if the city was putting roadblocks in place to prevent the request from going forward as quickly as it could. (Before Tsushima’s death, the city had been consulting with him on plans to renovate the skate park; supporters have argued that naming the park for him as the renovations, which the city plans to begin soon, are unveiled would be fitting.)

In February, the commission’s discussion of the proposal stretched nearly two hours, in an emotionally charged meeting marked by a long procession of Tsushima’s friends and family approaching the lectern to praise the skater’s good character and how he served as a role model to so many Ames youth by making the city’s skate park a welcoming and safe environment for them.

This month, backers of the proposal to name the skate park after Tsushima were joined by two local lawmakers: state Sen. Herman Quirmbach and state Rep. Lisa Heddens — Makenzie’s mother — both Ames Democrats.

Quirmbach, a neighbor of Tsushima’s mother and stepfather, took to the lectern to question why the proposed naming policy should require that an “outstanding individual” be deceased for several years.

“Is Carroll Marty still alive?” Quirmbach asked.

“Yes,” longtime Ames resident Jan Beran replied from the audience, to laughs. “Very much!”

“I’m glad to hear that! I’m not a disc golfer myself, but I believe we have a disc golf park that’s named after him, so it was obviously named after him while he was still alive, while he was around to appreciate the honor and recognition. And, by the way, it was so richly deserved. He built with his own two hands a number of features of our parks and rec system.”

Quirmbach also challenged the lack of a waiting period for someone who cuts a “big check” that allows them to “go right to the front of line.”

“As Keith said before, we want to get a policy so we can be consistent,” he said. “But shouldn’t we be consistent with our own community values, and shouldn’t we be consistent with our own history?”

Quirmbach returned to his seat, a Tsushima supporter in the room proclaiming, “Mic drop.”

Lisa Heddens spoke next, telling the commissioners that she hoped they understood why Tsushima’s supporters felt targeted, even if it wasn’t their intention, adding that perceptions were important to recognize.

She said that she supported a parks naming policy but urged that it be flexible, describing Tsushima as a model member of the community. “He left the state, and so often you hear of kids, that you want them to come back,” she said. “And here’s a young man who actually came back and opened up a small business in Ames.”

In fact, Tsushima started opening small businesses in Ames long before returning to open FLC Skateshop from California, where his career as a videographer for pro skaters and as a semi-pro skater himself was taking off before a freak skateboarding accident left him with a near-fatal brain injury in August 2014 from which, before his death, he had seemingly made a remarkable recovery.

As a senior at Ames High in 2006, Tsushima opened Focus Skate Shop in downtown Ames, in the space now occupied by the Vinyl Cafe. After graduating, he moved between Ames and California several times, at one point returning here to reopen the skate shop on Welch Avenue. After recovering from his injury at the On With Life brain rehabilitation center in Ankeny, he opened FLC Skateshop at the Lincoln Way storefront previously occupied by Studio X, a hair salon owned by Sonja Scigliano, whose son Tsushima had mentored at the skate park.

At Thursday’s commission meeting, Tsushima’s mother, Teresa Downing-Matibag, described how her son’s influence stretched well beyond Ames, with posthumous tributes to the fallen skater appearing in such notable places as skateboarding bible Thrasher Magazine. (And one friend of Tsushima’s at the meeting had traveled from Fort Collins, Colorado, to speak to the commissioners.) Downing-Matibag later handed five 63-page copies of a petition with over 2,000 signatures in support of the naming request to Abraham and several of the commissioners.

Dakota Canning, the Parks and Rec Commission’s most outspoken supporter of the skate park naming request but who was serving at his final meeting on Thursday, moved that the commission recommend that the City Council adopt the proposed naming policy but strike the three-year waiting period and add language to give preferential treatment to those who were directly connected to a parks system feature under naming consideration.

His motion to strike the three-year waiting period was shot down by the other commissioners, who noted the language allowing for exceptions at the council’s discretion and wanted to keep the stipulation in place to guard against bad actors and rash decision-making, but a subsequent vote to recommend the policy with the preferential treatment addition was passed, with only Canning objecting.

The proposed policy will now go before the council; should it approve the policy, the commission will then make a recommendation specifically on the request to name the park in Tsushima’s honor.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.