Updated: March 7, 2014 at 7:05 am
Tim Burke wandered around Ethan's Room Skate Shop on Thursday and just shook his head.
The shop was dark and shelves mostly empty. No backpacks or gear hung in the lockers. No tools rattled in the equipment room. The boardroom, its walls colorfully tagged in graffiti, was quiet.
A few boards, shoes, shirts, sunglasses and hacky sacks remained. But soon they'll all be gone.
Tim and his wife, Rita, may be gone, too, and some say it will be a huge loss to the kids who populate the Memorial Park skate park and to the neighborhood around Pikes Peak Avenue and Union Boulevard east of downtown Colorado Springs.
After five years of selling a few boards and gear, splinting broken bones, offering kids shelter from bad weather, a place to hang out and do homework, Burke gave up on Ethan's Room.
"We can't afford to operate the skate shop anymore," Tim said. "It's really sad because we really enjoyed working with the kids."
Shortly after the skate park opened in December 2008, Burke opened Ethan's Room, named for their son who was an avid skater. To make room for skaters, Tim converted the basement of the family's Burke Promotions advertising agency building at 1618 E. Pikes Peak Ave., across the street from the park.
Soon, Ethan was urging his dad to sponsor a skating team to promote the shop at competitions.
"I'd give them free stuff in exchange for five hours of community service," Tim said, describing how team members picked up cigarette butts or pulled weeds or collected trash from the park.
"They were required to do it to be part of the team," he said. "They had to be in school and a good citizen."
Over time, the skater kids came to trust Tim.
"We started it as a retail shop and ended up as a community service," Rita said. "Kids came here to get out of the weather or to get help when they were hurt and they came to view Tim as a mentor."
Tim tried to get kids to memorize the Declaration of Independence, for example, offering them store credits as rewards. And he became a guidance counselor who listened to their troubles and offered them advice.
"It was so rewarding being connected to the community like we were," Tim said. "We were building relationships with these kids that were really special."
For example, he tried to teach them how to deal with bullying and handle other issues they faced. And he rewarded good behavior, giving any kid 50 cents in store credit for every 200 cigarette butts they collected. Over the years, he figures skaters picked up 40,000 cigarette butts and hauled 20 tons of weeds and trash out of the park.
"They would tell me things they couldn't tell their parents," he said. "I'd give them straightforward answers and advice."
I asked about a general perception of skater kids as dropouts and vandals and juvenile delinquents.
I confess there was a time I would see kids with skateboards and sneer.
Then as I was riding my bicycle past the skate park in Goose Gossage Park one day I stopped to watch them in action. I quickly recognized their athleticism and skill and determination.
Over and over they would glide down the walls, jump, spin, grind and fall.
They had courage and toughness and reflexes and I came to admire them.
Tim and Rita agree skater kids generally are misjudged by folks who don't take the time to understand them.
Most were really good kids from tough family backgrounds, they said.
"They are great kids," Rita said, her voice rising. "You have to look at their circumstances. They are learning to survive and problem-solve in some really tough situations. They are growing up fast."
As we visited, in walked Debra Buenting, a business woman and resident of the nearby Hillside neighborhood. She was disappointed to learn Ethan's Room was closed.
"Where are these kids going to go?" she said. "This was much more than a skate shop. Tim was a counselor to kids."
Tim Rowan, a health care consultant who met Tim Burke in a business group years ago, echoed Debra's disappointment and concern.
He described how Burke helped drive drug dealers out of the skate park, and identify burglars caught on security video breaking into the skate shop.
"Who knows where they would hang out if Tim wasn't there, listening to their woes - and there were many - offering his judgment-free advice?" Rowan said. "Hundreds of our kids will lose a mentor, role model, a safe place to go."
They are even losing a first-responder in Tim Burke.
Tim faced many teens with broken bones over the years.
"The worst was when I splinted six broken wrists in one week in July 2012," Tim said. "We bandaged a lot of kids, literally and figuratively."
Unfortunately, the Burkes said, they didn't sell enough skateboards and things over the years to remain in business.
"We closed last week," Tim said. "We just didn't sell enough stuff to make it work. I'm 54, and I need to start making some money for us. It's just so sad."
Rowan hopes folks in the community will help.
"I can't think of a way to stop it," Rowan said. "I wish there was some way the community could somehow change his mind.
"It was much more than a skate shop. It's a real tragedy to see it disappear."
Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.