“You can’t spell community without Unity,” says Ian Wilhelm, 44, a lifelong skateboarder and owner of Unity Skate Shop as well as Unity Ramp Builders. Wilhelm has put in blood, sweat and tears to build a skateboard scene that he believed the local kids in his area deserved, but he didn’t do it alone. Wilhelm has worked with, and been inspired by, countless others throughout the process, and today his neighborhood is home to one of the largest cement skateparks in the state.
Wilhelm helped build his first mini ramp when he was 10 years old living in a neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two years later he moved away to another small, rural town, Port Orchard similarly located outside of Seattle, Washington. As the new kid in town, Wilhelm remembers repeated efforts from local families with children that skateboarded to get a permanent skatepark. Temporary parks came and went for decades.
At 25, Wilhelm was part of a small group of friends that managed to open and operate an inspirational indoor skatepark for a few years before complications forced its closure. Later, Wilhelm found his way onto the legendary Grindline Skateparks crew, working alongside Mark “Monk” Hubbard himself. Today, he grinds harder than ever juggling two skate-oriented businesses of his own on top of holding down a full-time job as a union carpenter.
Do you need a skatepark in your hometown? Have you ever considered where to begin or what it will take to get a movement started in your neighborhood? Wilhelm has the know-how for building a skate scene from foundation to finished product, and he is happy to share the knowledge.
We caught up with the career carpenter to talk about all of the tools required to build a proper skateboard community. From organization to action, Wilhelm tells all of the tricks to the trade that helped his town realize the skatepark and shop they always sought after.
Ian, thanks for sitting down to chat about the carefully cultivated skateboard scene in your neighborhood.
Let’s start with a two-part question; do you remember when exactly the movement to build a skatepark in town began, and then when the park was officially opened?
That’s kind of a loaded question because I feel like there has always been a movement for what we have now. I remember Neil [Hagar], his mom, and an entire group trying to get a skatepark way before KBS (Kitsap Board Shop, the inspirational indoor skatepark). I remember even another movement for the downtown tennis courts because a kid got maced when we were all just hanging out skating. That was years and years ago.
Way before the [South Kitsap] Skatepark Association started, while KBS was going on, I was working with a couple of parents. Tyler McMillan’s mom was one of them. We didn’t even know where to start, but we were having the conversations back then because we knew KBS wasn’t going to last forever.
The skatepark we have now opened in 2012, on Go Skateboarding Day. We started building it, the actual groundbreaking, in 2011. We started the [South Kitsap] Skatepark Association in 2007 and began hosting and attending all commissioner meetings up until we got our park. It was never a matter of shopping the park build-out to people, but rather put the budget up for people to bid on.
So, what we did was set the criteria for expectations. Such as; you have to have built X amount of skateparks already, and you have to have this high of a bond—because the way the county works it would have been that the lowest bidder wins. That is how you get around that problem, you make the bid requirements very specific to what you want and only a few people can actually bid on it so you don’t get some ramp company.
Grindline was the only bidder, so they won the bid.
Wow, sounds like the process to get the skatepark was seemingly never-ending. That’s amazing to hear all of the layers involved with making it happen.
How about Unity Skate Shop, when did you decide to start that business and what’s the story behind the name?
The idea for a skate shop has always been here since KBS (the old indoor skatepark in town) closed. Then, Ashley [Bastian] and I got together. She was going to school for business and we were just talking about skate shop ownership all the time. She ended up doing her final paper about owning a shop—totally random.
This [commercial storefront with residential above] building we saw was available, so we bugged them for like a month to finally get into talks with them. It was because we got this building that she shop came about. That was in September of 2014 and we opened the store in March 2015. It took us six months to open because we did it out of paychecks, not loans. Just a bunch of skate rats down here painting, decorating, and skating because one of the first things we did was build a ramp, of course.
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Good morning! Hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy and active! 🤙 . It is with great concern (and words from the governor) that we close our door. We will be closed Thursday, March 26th. We will reopen April 10th! . UNTILL THEN… we encourage you all to message us or call us if you are in need of anything skate related, and we will still get YOU what you need! We can FaceTime, set you up a board or pick out some skates together! Then simply come pick it up! . We can also mail orders too! 📦 . Think of it as a roll through skate shop! . The doors are closed but UNITY is NOT! So skate on! . #unityskateshop #unity #portorchard #skate #pnw #quarentinelife #temporary #staystrong #keepsmiling #wecanbeatthistogether
How about the genesis of the name?
The idea behind the name Unity has a couple different meanings. One of them is unifying skating: roller skating and skateboarding. There are so many similarities between roller skating and skateboarding, and not many cross overs—not a lot of people realize there are a lot of similarities there, and there are still a lot of walls between the two.
Skateboarders don’t realize that it came from roller skating. Roller skating and surfing; combine the two and you get skateboarding. Then, the huge movement of ladies [on roller skates] heading to the skateparks now, they don’t realize they have a lot they can learn from skateboarders if they want to and if they ask. So, getting that unity between skateboarding and roller skating.
Also, Unifying all of the little skate tribes of Kitsap [County]. It wasn’t that a skate scene was lacking-I believe that Kitsap has a rich skate scene and it has for a while but one thing that it didn’t have was unity. You had all of these crews throughout the community and some of them didn’t know each other but they all skated in the same town. I just thought that was weird. Plus, not having a skatepark didn’t help.
What would you say is the ultimate purpose of the skate shop? What are some of the services that it provides the commUnity?
What we are trying to achieve here is home. This isn’t our shop, this is your guys’ shop. When I say that I mean, we have access to the skate industry. If there are kids in this town that are having a hard time finding skate products, hopefully we can help find it for them.
Or, use this place to better yourself. We hold everything from fundraisers to shows here. Local skate rats will come in to have a band play. This place is not ours, it is for everyone. As far as product goes, we have everything standard for skateboards and roller skates and all the safety pads for both. We also do skate schools to try and help teach skateboarding, and not just the technical side but also the community side.
With this being your shop, it positions everything we do as for the community. Every contest we host, every show that we hold; everything we do gives back in some way to our community. Whether it is raising food for the food bank, or raising funds so at contests we can give out cash to winners—we all know that cash goes a lot further than winning a damn skateboard.
And just giving out food. Food is huge. So often we just go up to the skatepark and have a barbecue for everyone. Outside of this COVID-19, we try to do it as much as possible in order to feed everyone. You can come down here to hang out, if you need to get away. The mini ramp is always free. You can come down here if you need to sober up, we can help you—sometimes that has bitten us in the ass, but we are here for you. It’s nothing.
“A small town skate shop should be used more for community based activity than for profit, and I think every small town should have one. Just like they should all have a skatepark.” —Ian Wilhelm
Over the years you have become a point of contact for all things good, bad, ugly and beautiful as they relate to the skate scene in the town. How do you manage both the ongoing issues around the skatepark in addition to keeping the business going?
The shop is pretty well taken care of with Ashley, She does an amazing job taking care of it. She does the majority of the business end of that. I always say that I am the pretty face and she is the brains. [laughs] Pretty funny, huh?
But that is the trick, I could not do it all by myself. No fucking way.
The skatepark I take on as my own responsibility. I feel tied to that. Personally. Deeply. For a lot of reasons. The blood, sweat and tears put into it. The years of work to get it. We finally got the park and now I see all of the disrespecting of the park. I understand a lot of the stupid young stuff, like garbage and even graffiti is going to happen–not a big deal–but there is a lot more than that. Overall it isn’t too bad, but the skatepark [maintenance, complaints, ongoing issues] I do take on myself. The shop business, though, Ashley has that under control.
You mentioned the blood, sweat and tears; I know you have been a union carpenter for years, but I also recall you were working for Grindline Skateparks for a while, too. How did that come about?
I was a union carpenter at the time, and had been recently laid off. I went out to help a few of the [Grindline] guys build a vert ramp in Seattle and I remember when they were building the roof over it they put the trusses on backward. They needed a person with a strong back, that wasn’t afraid of heights, to be working on heights. I thought, ‘well shit, that’s me.’ When I started working with them we fixed the truss.
I worked great together with all the guys, we got into a good rhythm together and got the roof up over the vert ramp in no time. Well, the entire time I was doing this I was getting to know Mark Hubbard, and by the time we were done he asked if I wanted to come work for them at Grindline. I said, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I remember him saying he’d pay me 25 dollars an hours, which was a 22 dollar pay cut [from union carpenter work], I did not give a fuck. I was just like, ‘oh my god, I’m fucking doing this.’
I think I was even making more on unemployment while laid off than I was working for Grindline. I didn’t care, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Every morning I go over to meet Monk for coffee and go work out in the woods on skateparks with those guys, and then I was couple park builds in with them when they won the bid on Port Orchard.
While I was working on [the Port Orchard skatepark] I told them I didn’t want to get paid for my work on this job. I wanted them to take that money and spend it on more concrete and more labor. The entire time we worked on our home park I was still working for Grindline but I went unpaid as a volunteer. Eventually I realized that was hurting me.
Four years later Dreamland came to town to finish phase two of the park. They were looking for a place, I remember Mark [Red Scott] mentioning it and I said I had an empty room because the ramp room happened to be empty at the time. I told him I didn’t care and he didn’t have to pay anything but he offered me 500 bucks a month. It helped. They were here for four or five months.
You also have another skate business, Unity Builders. What’s the story there, what type of builds have you been a part of? How do people discover and request those services?
I’ve been building ramps most of my life. It has always been a hobby. I’ve tried a few ramp building companies, and have built a bunch of parks in the Puget Sound. Then I got hooked up with Roller Con a few years ago, building that skatepark every year. Then I would get a couple more ramps to build every year [from word of mouth at Roller Con], maybe from five ramp projects a year to about eight ramp projects a year.
I want it to become a full-time thing, just to build ramps. I can do concrete, too, but I’m not really interested in the concrete end of things. There is a lot of that out there, a lot of homies do that and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I just want to build wood ramps, and it is growing.
How has the pandemic affected all of your businesses? Have you had to change things up to keep things moving? What has helped you and what has hurt you about the pandemic?
I’m working full-time as a union carpenter, pouring cement, but I’m working four, tens. Then on the three-day weekends, I’m squeezing in as much Unity Builders as I can. There are no days off. Because of COVID we were stopped for a while, but then we started picking up a couple ramps.
As for the shop, it is doing amazingly well. When they first shut us down we covered the windows, moved all the merchandise, and built a skatepark throughout the entire shop. We didn’t know else to do, so we said, ‘fuck it, let’s skate.’ So we did that, it last for a week or two, then we got bored of it. So then we started a remodel.
We took everything out again, started painting the walls and everything but in that time we started getting calls and people messaging the shop on social media. And then more, and more, and more. So we didn’t even have time to finish our remodel. Ashley has been crazy busy with the shop and we have made half a year’s income in a month and a half.
It’s because of COVID, we changed from being just a small skate shop in a small town but now we are mailing products everywhere. Out of town, out of country—everywhere. A lot of that has to do with the roller skate scene because there are not a lot of roller skate shops out there, but also skateboard sales.
Here is the thing with skateboard sales, though. Our demand has gone up but our supplies have gone down. Distributors don’t have anything to send out. It goes for the roller skate industry, as well, but the little bit of stuff that we do have goes like crazy. Wheels, trucks—we can’t get shit.
Ashley is scouring the depths of the internet daily for product. She is always finding stuff, but there is no consistency or regular product from before and we just don’t know when it is going to end. Right now we are just going with it, but it is hit or miss. We will order 10 sets of trucks and two sets show up. Our sales right now are when we get stuff in.
Let’s wrap this up with some positivity and a few practical tips for readers. Any words of wisdom for the kids out there that need to build their own skate scene in their hometown? Where should they begin?
One of the biggest things that helped our town get a skatepark was The Bible, of course. By that I mean Peter Whitley’s book, How to Build a Skatepark that gives out for free through the Tony Hawk Foundation.
This is another really important message from the Unity name. Skateboarders are very self-centered and inward, they aren’t necessarily community-minded except for the fact that they want a skatepark. So, when they go to take on a local municipality to get a skatepark built it is very intimidating and they are not very organized. They don’t know how to approach these people. They know where to begin. Well, that book that I mentioned helps a lot, but also organize.
Skateboarders are not organized, we just go out and do things. So, finding that organization will help a lot. I firmly believe that getting these roller skate girls–and I had a class at Roller Con about this–brought into the conversation will bring a lot of organization. They know how to work together, create and reach out to non profits, how to come up with money and how to find places to hold their league events. They know how to get shit done.
These ladies are organized. I think getting them involved in the skatepark building movement is huge. Let them have a voice, not just help be involved but have a true voice, too. They have different skate experiences and different ideas than your typical skateboarder That is part of the Unity thing; don’t just leave it up to skateboarders, let everybody get involved. Get the whole community involved. Except scooters.
How about for the next step of starting a small business in a small town to support skating; any advice for what they should anticipate?
There is no money in it. We could not survive, with a family in a small town, on running a skate shop. If you are a kid and you want to open a skate shop, it doesn’t cost a lot to get it started. You could probably get a good, small town skate shop, start for $5,000. That’s really not a lot of money.
There’s not a lot of return on it, you’re not going to make a million fucking dollars, but the reward you get; you can hold contests, you can fund games of S.K.A.T.E., you can take skate trips. You get all these real reasons and excuses to go skate. It does take away from adulting. A small town skate shop should be used more for community-based activity than for profit, and I think every small town should have one. Just like they should all have a skatepark.
Alright, any final words for the larger skate commUnity as to how stay positive during such turbulent times?
It is very weird times, but I fell like in most things skateboarders lead the way. Be it an economic or a social movement, we are always the example. We may never get that credit, it’s never mentioned to look to the skateboard community. But in all actuality, skateboarders do not give a fuck about color, race, creed, religion, or anything like that and it has always been that way. It has not been a thing to skateboarders, any of that.
The world needs to learn something from skateboarding, pick up a Thrasher Magazine and read it! Well, maybe not a Thrasher… Big Brother, for sure. Definitely Big Brother, I had them all.