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Chairman on the board

By MARTIN HINTZ
Photos by Dan Bishop

October 2012

Neal Levin dips far into his childhood to recall how he got involved in skateboarding.

Around him, the roar of stoked skaters makes for a constant echo throughout his cavernous Four Seasons Skatepark.

Deep in the Menomonee Valley, there are no posers here. These kids are serious. And good. They swoop along the three mini-ramps, the deep clover bowl and a new 10,000-plus-square-foot outside course.

The current building is 22,000 square feet, built in 1903 and housing various tenants over the generations. It took Levinís 15-person team working daily for two months to get the park built and up and running. "It was a ton of work, but worth it," enthuses Levin, who is also involved in another work-in-progress skateboard project in Bay View.

"One of my childhood friends came to my house on a skateboard. I was 12 years old in 1983. I thought it looked so cool as he skated up to my parentsí house," recalls Levin. "I asked him if I could give it a try and I havenít stopped riding since."

He laughs at the fact that todayís boarders seem to be getting younger and younger when they first start. "They seem to be totally into it and eager to learn new tricks," he observes from his vantage point of years.

Even as Levin began his early career in the sport, his parents were super-supportive and let him take over the backyard and basement with skateboard ramps. They even backed his decision at age 17 to spend the summer teaching at a skate camp at Visalia, Calif.

As his skills grew while still a student at Homestead High School in Mequon, Levin attracted sponsors. The first was Screaming Tuna, an iconic Milwaukee skate shop, followed by Electric Ocean Clothing, H Street Skateboards and Gullwing Trucks. "I never got financial support from them, just in the form of products and gear. It was rare at the time to get paid to skateboard," he says.

Nor did a scout or agent find him. "I would send them VHS videos of me skating and photos in hopes of sponsorship. The owner of Screaming Tuna helped me out a ton in the beginning. The skateboard companies would look to local skate shops to find talent," he adds.

From there, he went on to help found Rewind in 1993, a streetwear and outerwear company marketed towards skateboarders, BMXers and snowboarders. He linked up with a Canadian company of the same name and settled in Montreal to handle design and promotion. But in 1998, Levin decided to move on and try something new. "I always had a love and passion for skateboarding, so that is when I decided to move back home and open an indoor skatepark," he says.

But being a boarder didnít fit the typical business mold that bankers could understand when Levin decided to renovate his historic structure, especially since there wasnít a blueprint for a skate park in 1999. But he received a grant from the Milwaukee County Parks to help open his Milwaukee location. Eventually, Four Seasons has received extensive additional support from local businesses and city officials.

Learning about Four Seasons is easy in these days of social media. It has a large Facebook following and an extensive website (4seasonssk8park.wordpress.com). Word-of-mouth is also important, as are flyers distributed to local retail shops. Most of Four Seasonsí clientele is from Milwaukee and nearby cities. But many participants are from Illinois and other surrounding states, contributing to the more than 20,000 riders at Four Seasons over the course of a year.

The park attracts kids of all ages, Levin indicates, saying some of the younger ones are typically more fearless.

For Levin, the financial challenge is always there, but heís learned to deal with that issue through years of hard work and lots of trial and error. "I love what I do though, so Iím always determined and dedicated to make it work," he says.

Naturally, he wears a lot of hats in his position: manager, adviser, instructor, friend and advocate. His typical day could go like this: Levin teaches skate lessons in the morning, designs a T-shirt in the afternoon, later builds a ramp and then sells something in the pro-shop in the evening. But, of course, no day is typical.

He praises his four-person staff, led by manager Jeff Gozdowiak. "Having him at the park is a crucial part of the success of my business. He takes a lot of stress and pressure off of me," Levin says.

For Levin, there are three important things to keep in mind while working with kids interested in such "extreme" sports as BMX/skateboarding. First is patience with the youngsters, especially with instruction and teaching them how to ride. Next is safety, so parents feel comfortable dropping off their kids. Finally, friendliness is paramount. "I want the kids to feel like Four Seasons is home," Levin says.

Since boarding can be a rough-tough sport, bruises are inevitable. Levin himself has had a few bad injuries, including a broken ankle and broken leg. Four Seasons requires helmets and recommends knee and elbow pads. "I strongly believe kids progress much faster when wearing the proper protective gear," he says, indicating that he still skates at least once a week. "I try to keep up with the younger kids. They keep me motivated and feeling younger," says Levin, 40.

He and his wife, Jessie, have two sons. Both Gavin, 4, and Ethan, 2, love their dadís chosen sport. When not boarding himself, Levin loves to be surfing on Lake Michigan.

"I think the future is bright," says Levin. "There are a lot of young kids that are into it. My hope is they stick with it. Right now, we are seeing the popularity of longboards and scooters on the rise."

The most exciting thing for Levin is watching the Four Seasonsí clientele grow and become confident with themselves and their riding, as well as watching some of the guys making a living out of their avocation.

"It feels great to have been able to provide a place for them to practice and compete," he says. "It takes a lot of dedication and years of hard work to become a pro these days. We are always changing up our park. Every three months we make at least one major change. Change is necessary to keep you current."

 


This story ran in the October 2012 issue of: