Skating a Fine Line 

Chesterfield County's funding of a new skate park raises questions about the tricky relationship between church and state.

click to enlarge news34_skatepark_100.jpg

Sounds like Chesterfield County's most ambitious recreational park yet. But this isn't the county's project.

The enormous recreation complex is the vision of LifeSpring Community Foundation, a 3-year-old nonprofit that seeks to provide the recreational, arts and educational opportunities that Chesterfield teenagers have had a hard time finding elsewhere.

The county government's all for it. Chesterfield's parks advisory board recently voted to give LifeSpring $25,000 in public money to equip a skate park that would be one piece of the complex.

But there's a catch — that park will be located at Southside Nazarene Church, a megachurch at the intersection of Courthouse Road and Route 288 that's also the headquarters of LifeSpring.

Steve Harper, director of LifeSpring's teen program, called XZone, is careful to differentiate between the nonprofit and Southside Nazarene. "The ickiest question" he says people ask is, "Is this the church?"

LifeSpring is an independent nonprofit that leases land and space from Southside Nazarene, he says: "No strings."

LifeSpring may not be legally part of Southside Nazarene, but neither is it secular. Its mission statement includes building a "faith based environment" for young people and families. The nonprofit's counseling arm, Footsteps, describes its services as "professional, competent, and distinctively Christian." Harper is listed on the church's staff list as "Pastor of Mission & Connection."

Harper says a big part of his job is making sure the boundaries between LifeSpring and the church are clear. Footsteps is faith-based just like the YMCA is faith-based, he says — in other words, the program's based on "wholesome values" but doesn't push religion on anyone.

This relationship with the church is the only way LifeSpring can fulfill its mission, Harper says, because it would be impossible for the organization to raise enough money to buy land and pay for the programs. LifeSpring leases rooms in the church for its summer and after-school teen programs. It installed a small skate park in the church parking lot and with local company SplatBrothers PaintBall operates three paintball fields on church land.

Southside Nazarene owns 293 acres along Route 288, stretching from Iron Bridge Road to Courthouse Road. LifeSpring intends to lease some of the land from the church in order to build its planned skate park, athletic fields and eventually, the 100,000-square-foot complex, Harper says. If LifeSpring were to dissolve for any reason, he adds, the group's contract with the county would allow Chesterfield to reclaim the skate park equipment bought with county funds.

The skate park and other facilities would be a boon to the county, says Chesterfield's Director of Parks and Recreation Michael Golden. The county's public facilities master plan calls for a slew of new parks to be built by 2020: three regional parks of more than 100 acres, seven smaller community parks and 29 neighborhood parks. The demand for athletic facilities is also growing. The master plan calls for Chesterfield to construct or upgrade 12 gyms and 43 athletic fields by 2010.

With land prices and construction costs rising, fulfilling this wish list seems unlikely. "Well, the county can't do it all," Golden says frankly. "We need help to do the facilities and programs."

Hence the county's many partnerships with private organizations. Chesterfield has given equipment for the skate park at the Manchester YMCA and for years has provided fields for Little League to run baseball games. A group of mountain bikers has offered to build trails in the county's undeveloped, 220-acre Horner Park off Genito Road. The county has previously partnered with the church and LifeSpring to hold a winter bandfest that drew 1,200 young people.

The parks board also recently gave $25,000 to Skateboarding Is Not A Crime (SINAC), a local skate group that intends to raise $500,000 and build a free-admission skate park — the first of its kind in Chesterfield — on an acre of county land at Clover Hill Sports Complex.

Should the county also be funding LifeSpring?

"I think it's a very confusing area," says Cliff Edwards, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "My tendency is caution when it comes to religious institutions and public institutions actually working out support schemes of one sort or another."

Because LifeSpring's planned skate park would be hosted by a church, run by a nonprofit and partially funded with public money, "you would have to have such a careful agreement," Edwards says. "Are you allowed to put religious advertising or religious mottoes, or are you going to impose any requirements there [other] than what would happen in a public park?"

Harper says the answer is no. The athletic facilities will be separate from the main church building and thus will not require patrons to walk through the church. (LifeSpring currently has its own entrance.) The proposed skate park will be closed on Sunday mornings, however, so the sound of kids grinding and practicing their kickflips won't disturb the service.

Golden, the parks director, acknowledges the trickiness of "separation of church and state issues." From the county's point of view, he says, the most important thing is "to make sure the public perceives and understands that anyone in the public can come there."

Anyone can, Harper says. XZone is aimed at county teenagers in grades six through 10. These are the teens who can't yet drive and would otherwise be aimless between 2 p.m., when school lets out, and 6 p.m., when parents arrive home, Harper says: "They just get into mischief or they're bored or they're not sure what to do."

Buses run from some area schools to Southside Nazarene, where LifeSpring provides teenagers with indoor basketball (played in the church's cavernous sanctuary), skating, paintball, computer games and software classes, tutoring and homework help. The after-school program costs $65 per week and so far has around 50 teens enrolled for the fall.

Within the next five years, the group wants to begin constructing the big recreation and aquatics facility and the collection of sports fields. "We're going to create one of the most cool spaces for teenagers ever seen in this area," Harper says.

The price tag on the entire project is around $16 million, he says — an ambitious goal for a new nonprofit that has little in the bank. Harper has planned two fund-raisers in October and is seeking more corporate sponsorships. Local sports groups have also expressed an interest in partnering with LifeSpring to build the pool and baseball fields, he says.

LifeSpring's current location inside the church itself "is not the ideal thing," Harper says. But soon, he says, LifeSpring will get its own home. "This is really starting to happen," he says. "And man, we need space." S

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