SPRING HILL — Eight months ago, Sean Cunningham signed a lease with the county and took the reins at Stewy’s Skate Park.
The park had fallen into disrepair after the former concessionaire left and the county was forced to take over operations. It was in danger of closing.
Cunningham was awarded the rental bid and opened the concession. He put a fresh coat of paint on the place and almost from the beginning formed a connection with the kids and adults who started coming back to the park.
But not even a month after he took over, the park was vandalized. Drinks from his cooler had been removed, opened and poured on the ground. At least 16 skateboards were missing, while some were strewn about the park. All his paperwork was destroyed.
Eight months later, Cunningham has rebounded from his rocky beginning and said business — while still not great — is improving. Better times are around the corner, he said, and nobody will chase him away.
“For me to shut down is not an option,” said Cunningham, 41, an avid skateboarder. “I’m not going anywhere.”
That’s good news for people like Andrew Navedo, 21, who’s been coming to Stewy’s since he was 10 and regards the place as his second home. Navedo said Cunningham has not only revitalized the park but provided a safe haven for kids in the area.
“(Sean) is taking his time to bring back to the community,” said Navedo, who visits the park at least twice a week. “He’s doing it because he wants to do something for the kids and keep them off the street.”
Navedo said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for kids to find a place to skateboard and Stewy’s is the only place around.
Cunningham said the damage from the vandal — a juvenile who later admitted to deputies he was high on drugs and was looking for money at the concession stand — was an unfortunate start to his job.
But Cunningham was encouraged when the skateboarders banded together to support him and even tried to fix the place and get it back into working order. Hernando County also beefed up security by installing iron bars over the concession window and added more locks.
“That was much, much appreciated,” he said.
There is a genuine family atmosphere at Stewy’s, said Cunningham, who does maintenance work at Campers Holiday in Brooksville during the day and gets to Stewy’s around 3 p.m. most days.
In February 2012, Hernando County was forced to take back operation of Stewy’s Skate Park after the nonprofit organization that had previously handled it defaulted on its insurance.
The park was a frequent target of vandals and the county and parks staffers had to come out to clean up various messes. The county spent some $1,000 repairing previously damaged roll-up windows at the stand and added a security bar.
Stewy’s is part of Pioneer Park at 6799 Pinehurst Drive in Spring Hill.
County commissioners at one time had included Stewy’s on the list of possible park closings to help balance the budget. But the county was inundated with signatures on a petition hoping to keep the operation going.
The county bid out the concession stand and hoped that having someone on-site would cut down on vandalism.
“So far, it’s been good,” said Assistant County Administrator for General Services Russ Wetherington. “We’ve had no complaints from anyone.”
Cunningham pays the county $150 a month to run the concession.
Wetherington said he believes Cunningham’s presence at the skate park helps keep out any troublemakers. The park, he said, is valuable to the community and he hopes Cunningham will make a go of the concession stand.
Cunningham said he’s had to break up the occasional fight and call law enforcement but nothing major has occurred in the way of trouble.
County Commissioner Dave Russell said concessionaires are vital to the health of local parks because they draw more people to the facilities.
Stewy’s is a prime example of someone willing to step up and enhance conditions, he said.
“You’ve got a private sector enterprise running the concession and if he’s doing well, that’s a good thing,” Russell said. “Folks are using the park and that’s a good thing too.”
It’s difficult, he added, to find a down side.
Cunningham said he just recently added Friday night skating and that has been successful.
The park is open until 10 p.m. and the skaters like using the ramps and other obstacles courses under the lights, he said.
Cunningham keeps a bucket by his concession stand for anyone who wants to donate money to help keep that going. The county has lights installed at the park but Cunningham must pay to keep the lights on.
“That way, the kids have someplace to go on a Friday night,” Cunningham said.
He figures the park gets about 30-40 skaters on a typical weekend and may about 20 on a weekday.
Frequently, Cunningham can be seen skateboarding with the rest of his customers and family.
“We enjoy it, my kids enjoy it and my daughters are even getting better at skating,” he said.
Skater Jackson Proell said he is just glad that Cunningham is committed to staying the course and hopes it will be there for a long time.
“It’s fun,” Proell said. “I love it here.”