The sun’s shining. The wind’s blowing. And it’s 70 degrees. It doesn’t feel a thing like January on this Friday morning in Youth Park. Just off Johnston Street at St. Julien Avenue in Lafayette, behind the fire station and the Goodwill, a half dozen men are digging a giant hole in the ground with an excavator. It looks like they’re digging out a nice-sized swimming pool shaped like an enormous kidney bean. Under one of the oak trees, there’s a battered radio, and Leadbelly is blaring, singing “Polly Wolly Wee.” Twenty-one-year-old Ooti Billeaud, fresh out of class from UL (where he says he just aced an exam) rides up on a jet black bicycle. His 8-year-old black Jack Russell Terrier mix, Girl, is right on heels. Billeaud lays his bike down and walks into the construction area, doing what he’s been doing since the crew broke ground, checking up on the progress of the bowl.
Trey Guidry, another 21-year-old majoring in business at UL, rides up on his bike to survey the scene. Both of his arms are covered in tattoos, and the one of a praying mantis covering his right shoulder and upper arm was inked just the day before. “That’s why I’m wearing a sleeveless T-shirt,” he says, as he texts away on his cell phone. He’s also been riding by to check out the bowl’s progress. “It’s going to be a nice place for kids to come outside and have something to do instead of just sitting around inside, playing video games.”
Dave Wattigny, the foreman on the job, sits in the driver’s seat of a small front loader. He says the finished bowl will be a little more than 2,500 square feet, with the steepest part about 7.5 feet deep.
Thirty-seven year-old Cary Jackson, a partner in Ideal Skate in Austin, the subcontractor on the project, says the weather’s been cooperating, and the project is on schedule. When completed, the bowl will be 70 feet long and 40 feet wide, with a 5-foot wide deck. “I like big decks for people to be able to roll in and to hang out,” he says.
It’s apparent after talking to these two that they don’t just build bowls and ramps; they skate them. And they hope to build more in the area. “This is just a proof of concept for the community,” Jackson says.
Within the month, Lafayette will have its first public skate park. It’s been a long road to get the first one built. Ask those who’ve been involved with the project throughout the years, and they all say the same thing, “You need to talk to Ooti.”
When Ooti Billeaud was in sixth grade, he contacted Greg Gautreaux, manager of athletic programs/park maintenance for Lafayette Consolidated Government, and asked if there was a public park for bikes and skateboards. Gautreaux didn’t have anywhere to send him.
“We’re always getting on the skaters for skating around the Cajundome or the hospital,” Gautreaux says. “We run them off and tell them they can’t do it. People sometimes are intimidated by skaters, but they’re human beings just like you and me. Maybe they don’t enjoy football like I do, but they enjoy skating, which is just another form of recreation.”
There was a plan for a “wheels park” on 65 acres in north Lafayette for wheels-related recreation, like BMX bicycles, skating and RC cars. The entire project was budgeted at $3.4 million, and the first phase of the project was for BMX, with $400,000 allotted. But the first bid for the BMX phase came back at $1.2 million. “It was way over budget,” Gautreaux says. “We tried to scale it back, but it still came to like $700,000.”
Mike Hollier, LCG’s planning manager, and Billeaud are neighbors. One day Billeaud knocked on Hollier’s door and asked him how he could get a public skate park built. Hollier detailed the steps Billeaud would need to take and thought he would never hear about it again.
“This was a kid in high school,” Hollier says, “and then he made a presentation to our Rotary Club, and it was well done. I’ve got to tell you, I was blown away.”
“They thought I was just some kid who was going to lose interest in six months or a year,” Billeaud says. “But I just kept on them, and finally they started taking me seriously.” In February 2005, while he was a junior year in high school, Billeaud approached LCG with his idea.
Jim Edwards, a project coordinator with LCG’s public works, remembers Billeaud pitched “a very professionally prepared plan” that included photos and examples of skate parks throughout the nation, like the public skate park in Hammond.
“Ooti has dogged this persistently,” Edwards says. “My hat’s off to him for his tenacious persistence. We had some things to overcome with this project. It’s kind of like water torture, but we endured it. We got through it, and here we are on this site actually turning some dirt. It’s really been a privilege to work with Ooti on this.”
“I wanted something both bikers and skateboarders would like,” Billeaud says, “but also I knew how much we could get per square foot. So I was trying to think of something that would be fun that everybody would like.” Billeaud designed several plans, dependent on how much money might be available. “There’s a lot of factors you have to consider, like how big the deck is because that affects square footage. There’s just a million things, but I just worked with them back and forth.”
And while Billeaud’s been busy designing a skate park, he’s also been busy making improvements to Youth Park. In the summer of 2007, he loaded his ’98 Corolla with bricks, made a dozen trips and hauled them to the park to build a concrete ramp. He convinced relatives at general contractor J.B. Mouton to donate 40 loads of dirt to build jumps. “Most of it’s personally funded,” Billeaud says. “People help out here and there. I just ask friends, ‘Hey, give me ten bucks and let me go build a grind box.’” That ability to squeeze ten bucks at a time out of friends has proven beneficial, especially when working with local government.
Greg Gautreaux says $80,000 was budgeted for this phase of the park, and the bowl will cost $78,000. There’s another $25,000 budgeted for a second phase that may include free-standing ramps in the old basketball court. But Billeaud hopes the city will forego building more ramps and will instead add lights to burn all night to deter vandalism. “I think that’s the next step we need to take to make sure that people respect the park and don’t mess it up.”
“Hopefully,” Gautreaux says, “they’ll take pride in it. Normally, user groups, when they have something like that, they do take pride in the facility.”
So, what’s local government’s liability in building a public park that facilities a form of recreation that’s at times dangerous? “We’re going to have the proper signage,” Gautreaux says. “It’s like anything else, even on a piece of playground equipment, you’re going to assume some type of risk. But we’re also going to require the standard safety equipment like head gear and pads.”
Even the city-parish attorney, Pat Ottinger, doesn’t seem concerned with any liability on local government’s part. “As in any undertaking involving facilities of a recreational nature we would have to take appropriate care under the circumstances and make sure we identify and minimize hazards, if they exist.”
Edwards says the benefits of the park will far outweigh any risks. “I think when people see the excitement and the use generated by this thing, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be building these all over the place.”
Billeaud calls the park a “ramp park,” stressing the idea that has always driven him — that bikes and boards can coexist peacefully in the same recreational space. “People think that BMX bikes and skateboards can’t ride together, but it’s all about etiquette. You don’t go straight through a stop sign. You stop and look both ways before you go. That’s all that there ever needs to be, just basic respect and etiquette.”
“Ooti is something else,” Edwards says. “I look for him to be in politics someday. He sticks to it, puts his shoulder down, and doesn’t look back. He’s not been daunted at all. My hats off to him. I really applaud that kid. I’ve never met anybody quite like him, not at his age and not with his level of maturity.”
But Billeaud isn’t looking for a career in politics. “I’m just trying to get out of school as soon as possible,” he says. He’s majoring in marketing and minoring in visual arts. But what he wants to do, aside from ride, is to learn more about photography.
And he’s not quite sure if he wants to be involved with building any more skate parks. “I kind of go back and forth with it. I don’t know if I ever want to do this again, unless I’m getting paid a lot of money for it,” he says with a laugh. “I guess as long as I’m here, though, I would like to push to get a park that’s half a million to $2 million. I don’t know how realistic that it is, but at least we have one done, so it’s like it would be a little bit easier.”
Says Hollier, “I don’t know what this guy is going to do with his life, but it’s going to be fascinating. I’m curious as hell to see where he goes.”