Laguna Vista landmark could be demolished

The Gwen Bowl sits adjacent to a small section of the parking lot Thursday at Cross Church in Laguna Vista. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

On the far corner of the parking lot at Cross Church in Laguna Vista sits a bright blue, kidney-shaped skate bowl that appears slightly out of step with its surroundings.

Constructed in 2006 by local skaters with permission from what was then Christ’s Harbor Church and the congregation’s pastor, the Gwen Bowl means the world in an area that has historically been unwelcoming to the Rio Grande Valley’s skateboarding culture.

The church’s property has since been transferred into the hands of Cross Church, which the local skating community says does not wish to have skaters on the property — that it’s a liability, and that there may be plans to demolish what is now a Laguna Vista landmark.

Cross Church was contacted for an interview regarding their stance on Gwen Bowl and their plans for the property. Staff did not respond to the request for information.

Raul Valdez, Jr., 48, a skater, surfer, and Port Isabel native who grew up on South Padre Island, was one of several local skateboarders with S.P.I.T.S (South Padre Island Texas Skateboarders) who advocated for the construction of a skate park in the area for years.

Prior to Gwen Bowl’s construction, locals would have to travel as far as Houston or Austin to visit a formally designated space to skate.

“Back in the day we had a half pipe or quarter pipes and we’d pull them in with trailers wherever they’d let us set up, throw a little contest and put money aside, and sell food. We raised about $6,000 in all that time,” he said.

Valdez’s friends, brothers Eric and Ben Christensen, attended Christ’s Harbor Church in Laguna Vista. They approached former Pastor Ernest Jones with the idea of building a safe, dedicated spot for local kids to skate and a tentative agreement was reached to construct a bowl on the property.

When Don Ceglar took over as senior pastor, he took the idea of the bowl’s construction to the congregation to a vote. “One of the subjects I brought up was we’ve got this bowl out there and it may or may not be a liability. I told them the good is that we could probably do ministry through [the bowl],” said Ceglar, who is now retired.

The bowl’s construction was not approved unanimously, but the majority vote skewed heavily towards “yes.” And so a handshake agreement was made.

“I let S.P.I.T.S. know that the property was theirs, that they were responsible for what happens there, and that they should maintain it and take care of it. As the 10 years unfolded, that’s exactly what happened,’ the former pastor said.

Skaters were allowed to use the church’s water fountain and bathrooms. The final condition of the bowl was that it be named after a member of the congregation, Gwendolyn McCormick, who was hit by a truck while skateboarding home from the library on the same street the bowl was eventually built.

The group constructed the bowl themselves, cementing the message “<3 Gwen” in red tile on the ground.

Valdez, the Christensen brothers, and anyone else who wanted to participate took care of the bowl across the decade. And they still do.

“Every time I go see my mom in Laguna Vista, I always swing by there and I take my water pump, my broom, and I clean it up. No matter if I skated or not. The guys in my Refuge Crew Surf and Skate team — we go and we skate it and we clean it. The younger kids too,” said Valdez.

Pastor Don confirmed this. “Twice, a hurricane blew the steeple off the church. The skateboarders were out there paling water out of the bowl, fixing the drain, carrying away all the rubbish,” said Ceglar.

The church had liability insurance, but according to Ceglar, his church did not once have to use it for the bowl.

“Nobody ever came and knocked on the door and said hey, we hurt ourselves out there. They handled everything. They took care of their own stuff. And I was very, very proud of that. It was an outreach with the community. Kids did come in, there was no destruction, no vandalism.”

Christ Harbor’s property was eventually transferred into the hands of Cross Church. The handshake agreement with the skaters was just that — neither party had filed paperwork, but according to Ceglar and Valdez, it was understood prior to the transfer between the church, the skaters, the community, and the city that the small section of land belonged to S.P.I.T.S.

However, as Ceglar explained, when the property switched hands, the mindset changed. “They seem to be more worried about the liability more than the outreach. If I’m not mistaken, they might remove the actual playground, too,” he said.

“We have housing for people with limited income right outside the church. Some of those moms — all they had was that playground. That’s what a church should be. The new church doesn’t seem as welcoming to the neighborhood.”

The project in Laguna Vista was the first success for the community’s skateboarders in decades.

Valdez helped facilitate the construction of skate parks in Olmito, Edinburg, Raymondville, and Los Fresnos, all of which he said went up without a problem.

According to South Padre Island’s Parks and Recreation Department, the recently approved proposal to construct a skate park in John Tompkins Park is moving forward.

The design and planning are in their final stages and the park should be completed by the spring of 2021, the office said last week.