Owner AJ Waters skating at Stronger Skatepark in Milwaukie.
Owner AJ Waters skating at Stronger Skatepark in Milwaukie. Blair Stenvick

AJ Waters found skateboarding as a 12-year-old living in rural Illinois, after happening upon the X Games on television.

“I saw it and was just like, ‘That is amazing, and I am obsessed,’” Waters tells the Mercury on a recent Wednesday morning while sitting on a couch at Stronger Skatepark, the indoor skatepark they own in Milwaukie, before the business opened for the day. Stacks of brightly colored skateboards, pads, and helmets hang on the wall behind them.

“I was completely hooked—it became my entire life for years,” Waters continues, their voice echoing in the large, airy space. “That was all I wanted to do.”

Waters opened Stronger Skatepark in April of 2019, with the “desire to make a space that felt more welcoming to everyone on the outskirts of skateboarding, because I had been that way.”

“I was assigned female at birth, so everyone saw me as someone different, and I wasn’t always included,” adds Waters, who transitioned as an adult. “I had to make my own space. No one was doing it for me.”

Less than a year after opening, Stronger Skatepark was forced to shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the skatepark remains in business—it celebrated its two-year anniversary last weekend—and is poised to expand. Waters credits the park’s survival to community support, and a team of hardworking employees, including general manager Jamie Brown.

“We made it through by the skin of our teeth and some debt,” Waters says, “but we made it.”

But the pandemic was hardly the first challenge Waters encountered in opening and running the skatepark.

"It’s really calming to have the asphalt vibrating, and wheels going back and forth on a half-pipe. I would wake up and crave that—I had to go outside and roll around.”

Waters moved to Portland in 2012, long after the Illinois skateboarding scene they’d loved as a kid had frayed into nothing. They were surprised and delighted to find a still-vibrant skateboard culture in Portland, and soon started coaching with the Portland chapter of Skate Like a Girl, an organization that promotes gender diversity among youth skateboarders. Others in the organization wanted to start hosting a skateboarding conference, like one they traveled to in Seattle—but Waters realized there wasn’t a beginner-friendly, indoor skatepark in the Portland area they could use for it.

“We could have done it in an outdoor park, but we’d be dealing with the weather, and the public would be there—it’d just be really difficult to do,” Waters says. “Then I was like ‘Why don’t we have a good place?’”

Waters had dreamed of owning a skatepark and skateboard shop as a kid. They didn’t have any formal business experience, but they’d grown up in their family-owned pizza restaurant, and had helped found a church back in Illinois, “which honestly is pretty similar to starting a business,” Waters says.

Five years passed between that seed of an idea for an indoor skatepark—one that would put inclusivity at its core—to actually opening Stronger Skatepark in 2019. During that time, Waters leaned on their friends who had opened small businesses for practical wisdom, answering questions like, “How do you get insurance? How do you hire employees? How do you do taxes?” But the biggest obstacle was tracking down a location for the park.

Finding a location for an indoor skatepark is a uniquely difficult task. It has to be large, like a warehouse, but equipped with sprinklers and permitted as a customer-facing business. On top of that, rent for such a large space in the Portland area can be prohibitively expensive. Waters widened their search to include Clackamas County when they realized the permitting process there was less onerous than in Multnomah, and finally found a location on King Road in Milwaukie, nestled in a strip mall next to a bottle drop, that fit the bill.

“Finding this place was a miracle," Waters says.

Waters standing in the merchandise section of Stronger Skatepark.
Waters standing in the merchandise section of Stronger Skatepark. Blair Stenvick

After opening in 2019, Stronger Skatepark quickly gained a reputation for being accessible for beginners, and encouraging folks who ordinarily might be shut out of skating. Waters made arrangements for a kid who uses a wheelchair to skate while sitting down on a skateboard, and the park makes appointments for kids on the autism spectrum to come skate before opening hours, when there’s less noise and fewer people around that might make focusing difficult. Waters wants to offer skateboarding as a refuge for kids, the way it was growing up for them.

“I was undiagnosed autistic at the time [I started skateboarding], and almost certainly depressed,” they say. “I was pretty much a loner, and this is something I could do on my own… And the actual physical movement of skateboarding fulfilled a lot of sensory needs. It’s really calming to have the asphalt vibrating, and wheels going back and forth on a half-pipe. I would wake up and crave that—I had to go outside and roll around.”

After opening, the skatepark attracted a lot of families with kids, young adults, and teens who would buy day passes during the weekend and come in and out of the shop in packs, leaving to grab pizza and ice cream before coming back for more skating. But even as Waters started to find success with the business, they still had something nagging at them: They realized they were transgender soon after opening the skatepark, and spent most of the first year it was open still halfway in the closet.

“I was like, ‘Holy shit, now what?” Waters remembers. “‘I just met thousands of people and told them this is a woman-owned skatepark, and my name is this, and now I have to do that all again, but come out as trans? I can’t do that.’”

Waters finally came out in a video posted to Stronger Skatepark’s social media pages, and felt relief when they started hearing their proper name and pronouns at work.

“I spent months sitting here feeling like I was playing two parts,” they say. “Now I’m on the other side, I’m out at least, and it’s much easier than the first year that we were open.”

“That second closure was so much harder than the first.”

All seemed to be going well when the skatepark closed for a couple days in early March 2020 to add some improvements to its skate ramps. But then the COVID-19 pandemic came to Oregon, and what was supposed to be a two-day closure ended up lasting several months. The park’s one-year anniversary party was held on Zoom.

The closure hit Stronger Skatepark hard, but it skated by on cash donations from customers, business grants, and a booming demand for skating merchandise as Oregonians turned to outdoor activities as a pandemic-safe pastime.

“For most of April and May [last year], I was driving all over Portland doing deliveries,” Waters says. “The sales for sporting goods were way up, and I had sporting goods.”

The park reopened in June as Oregon COVID cases declined last summer, but then was forced to shutter again in November when the winter spike began. What Governor Kate Brown originally framed as a two-week “pause” for businesses ended up lasting until January in the Portland area. There wasn't as much grant funding for businesses during that second closure, and struggling community members weren't as able to help support local spots like Stronger Skatepark.

“That second closure was so much harder than the first,” Waters says. “The state was just like, ‘Hey, time to close again.’ I also want to be safe and I think that was the right choice, but it was so hard because the community just didn’t come out and give us money the second time we closed.”

But the business survived, and opened back up in January with COVID-safe protocol it’s still using: A strict mask policy, and only 10 skaters allowed in during each two-hour-long session.

“At the outdoor skateparks, most people aren’t wearing masks,” Waters says. “We’re trying to be as safe as we can, and people definitely appreciate that.”

The lease recently became available for the space next-door to Stronger Skatepark, and Waters jumped at the chance to expand their skating area. They’re also looking forward to welcoming kids to the park’s skateboarding day camps this summer—continuing their mission to create a skatepark where everyone feels welcome, and learning is encouraged.

“That’s really important to me, to be able to get more people to try it,” they say. “You never know who is going to click with it and love it. This could be their thing, and it could bring them as much joy as it brings me.”