July 20, 2020
Phillip Gripper is a man of many talents. Besides being a versatile recording artist and musician (he’s a member of the Hip Hop Prodigies collective, local band Modern Primitives, and his own solo venture Moon Man Music), Gripper is also a gifted rollerblader, having recently placed second in an event at the renowned Kona Skatepark in Florida. But beyond his talent, the core tenant of Gripper is in serving others through Oso Skate Park in Plaza Midwood, where he has controlling interest.
Oso Skate Park is the personification of Gripper’s multi-faceted endeavors. Since it opened in November 2017, it serves as part skate park, part childcare facility, part art and entertainment venue, and part service hub. The park is open to scooters, skateboards, BMX bikes, in-line and quad skates. You can free skate or schedule a private lesson to up your skills. If skating’s not your thing, Oso also puts on concerts, art shows, and community service opportunities as well. When interviewed before opening in 2017, Gripper’s desire was to foster “positivity, creativity, unity, and learning,” important to building his version of community. In the two and a half years the park has been open, a communion of regulars and newcomers of all ages and demographics has been drawn into the diverse array of fun Gripper and his team have organized.
A central attraction Oso offers is a skate camp for kids that takes place a few times a year, primarily in the summer when school is out. The instruction and skating practice are mixed up with games. It’s an opportunity for kids to learn how to skate in a fun environment, but Gripper says the camps play a bigger role than just teaching kids to skate; they’re opportunities to grow, personally. This could be through discussing issues at school, home, or anything they want to talk about. “We’re like, pretty much big brothers and sisters” Gripper explained. “We’re getting into these kids’ lives…telling you things that they won’t tell their parents.”
Another key attraction is music. The all-ages shows on weekends are a common occurrence and often feature a band, DJ, or rapper. One of the groups Gripper specifically wants to feel at home at these shows are teens. For Gripper and the show organizers, that’s when they began to fall in love with music, so they wanted teens to have a safe space to invite friends and see live shows.
In addition to music, art is another form of entertainment Oso offers. 1313 Skateboards and Pabst Blue Ribbon co-sponsor art parties at the skate park. These parties often feature local and out-of-town artists, along with a DJ, and transform the space into an impromptu art gallery for an evening. Gripper says these parties are incredibly successful, and attract an older crowd of people who aren’t necessarily interested in skating at all.
If providing instruction and entertainment to serve many different walks of life are the essential building blocks to who Gripper is and how Oso Skate Park operates, community service is the cornerstone. They’ve done skate demos for the School of Rock, collected toys for Levine Children’s Hospital, and partnered with Autism Charlotte’s after-school program to teach kids with autism how to skate. But, while those service opportunities are impressive enough, that’s not the end of their giving.
The most prominent display of Gripper’s mission is through “Community Unity,” a monthly event where people in the community gather to make sandwiches for the homeless. Every second Saturday, Oso partners with Issa Vibe Adventures, a local non-profit that provides people of color with outdoor activities, to pack sandwiches for the Urban Ministry Center. Starting at 10 a.m., the volunteers make and pack sandwiches, ferociously assembling up to 800 in a little over an hour. Community Unity draws together all walks of life, bringing a group of diverse ages and ethnicities together towards a common mission.
On March 20, a few days after Gripper returned home from Florida, CMPD ordered Oso to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A business centered around the mission of serving others was forced to stay socially distant, away from those it serves. A state of emergency was declared down in Florida while Gripper was there the week of March 15, so he understood early on that this “was no joke.” Another eye-opening problem was presented to him immediately after that: making rent.
Immediately, Gripper and his team went to the drawing board to determine how they were going to generate income without being open. They promoted membership packages to the skatepark, sold deposits for future skate camps, and debuted new shirts and stickers for sale online. The money made from these ventures, plus some additional funding from one of Oso’s investors, has allowed the park to stay alive.
“If one any single piece was lacking, I’m not sure we would’ve made it,” Gripper said.
Oso has been able to operate under a few exceptions to North Carolina’s Phase Two guidelines. Since childcare has been deemed an “essential business,” the park has been able to operate its summer camp schedule, but with restrictions in place. Instead of all day, the camp lasts until 12 p.m., and only ten kids are allowed per session. Community Unity is allowed as well, but with the proper social distancing in place.
“We’re not making money, we can’t have anyone in, but we’re still taking care of the community,” Gripper said. “That’s why we’re here.”
When the park does reopen, things will look and operate much differently. Gripper says that people already social distance by design when they skate, so that shouldn’t be a concern. Nevertheless, they’re making sure things are secure, taking what he calls “hospital-like” precautions, which have already been practiced with the summer camp groups
Before you enter, your temperature will be checked at the door. All staff will be wearing masks and you are required to wear a mask in the waiting area, but not while skating due to the heat. Hand sanitizer will be available all around the park to properly sanitize. Proper sanitation also means that no rental helmets or pads will be made available, as COVID-19 has been shown to spread through sweat.
For now, it’s a waiting game until things can open again. All of the events Oso had planned were canceled or postponed, with the future on hold, at least until August 7. When he’s not pursuing his newest venture in Moon Man Music, Gripper spends most of his time in the park, hanging out and skating to “keep the vibe alive.”
“We’ve got some more bumps in the road, I’m sure, but we’re going to push through this,” he said.
It’s fitting to Gripper’s optimism and a general focus on others that another lifeline has been the community he loves. A GoFundMe page has popped up in support of Oso Skate Park, and is currently just short of its $6,000 goal. Monetary support is met with many gushing comments. One commenter named James shared Gripper’s sentiment: “Stay strong gentlemen, this too shall pass.”
One of the biggest contributors to their GoFundMe is Snug Harbor, another local Plaza Midwood staple. The bar’s been closed as long as Oso, but that didn’t stop them from donating $500. They explained their reasoning in a recent post on Instagram, with one sentence standing out above the others: “These great folks have been paying it forward for years and Charlotte is going to need them to stick around for a long, long time.”
For Gripper, his mission is affirmed. “It just makes me feel happy to know that I’m able to be associated with such great leaders in our community,” he said.