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You Can Skate or Die (But Also Shop at Lane Bryant) at SkaterApolis, Burnsville Center’s New Skatepark

How do you bring back a dying mall? Open up a skatepark.

Mark and Raha Somerville at SkaterApolis, photo by Patrick Strait

With the exception of a handful of mall walkers and the occasional afternoon visitors to Chuck E. Cheese, there hasn’t been much going on at Burnsville Center the past couple of years. That changed this October, when SkaterApolis, a full-scale skateboard park featuring ramps, half pipes, and rails, opened inside the former Gap Kids space on the second floor.

Mark Somerville, owner of SkaterApolis, got into skateboarding back in the '80s, but eventually moved on to other things. He reconnected with the sport after he and his wife started having children.

“I started finding myself spending a lot of time at playgrounds with the kids, just wasting time,” he says. “So eventually I brought a board with me and it turned out I could still do a kick flip. At that point I figured let’s see if we can get everyone into it.” 

Today, Somerville, his wife Raha, and their five kids—Amira, Anisah, Ayan, Mohamed, and Zayd—can be found at SkaterApolis pretty much all day, every day, welcoming new skaters, teaching lessons or preparing for their next competition. But owning a skatepark wasn’t always in the plans. 

“When the pandemic hit, I was laid off from my job, and we were skating all the time at the local outdoor skateparks,” Somerville recalls. “Parents would approach me and be like, ‘Are you giving lessons?’ and I’d say, ‘No, these are my kids.’ People kept asking until I was finally like, ‘Yeah, I’m giving lessons.’” 

The unforeseen career shift led Somerville to search for a place to open a skatepark of his own. But finding a spot that welcomed skateboarders was a lot harder than he thought. 

“Most people don’t want anything to do with a skatepark,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was really challenging finding a space; I had pretty much given up. Then my wife said I should go talk to the mall.” 

Skeptical but with nothing to lose, Somerville approached Burnsville Center management with the idea. The owners jumped at the opportunity, and a few months later SkaterApolis was born. 

“The first day we opened we had like 80 people who came just to check it out,” he says. 

Kids at the Mall Ratz Skater Camp

While the location of the park has made some people scratch their heads, Somerville says it’s also attracted a lot of attention from first-time skaters and curious passersby. 

“We have so many people trying it for the first time,” Somerville says proudly. “The fact we get to touch people who never in their lives would wander into a skatepark has been a blessing.”

On any given afternoon, it’s not uncommon to find a group of teen girls in hijabs shredding inside of the park. 

Somerville and his entire family are Muslim, and Raha immigrated from Somalia. All five of their children are competitive skaters, and their visibility and success in the local skateboard community have helped to increase diversity in their own business. 

“We’re definitely having an effect here,” Somerville says. “We’re out here trying to represent the Muslim community in the skateparks. We’re not a religious organization or anything, but we want to be able to show kids of different backgrounds that skating is something everyone can do.” 

The two youngest kids in the family, Zayd and Mohamed, are currently preparing for a competition next month out of state. The others have competed in the past, and the display of trophies and framed photos behind the counter at SkaterApolis prove that skating definitely runs in their blood. Almost all their blood, that is. 

“I just started skating,” laughs Raha. “I can cruise around pretty well, but I’m going to join one of the camps to learn how to do a little more on the ramps and everything else here.” 

While there are plenty of younger skaters thrashing inside the park at any given time, SkaterApolis has created a community where people of all ages and abilities can sharpen their skills. 

“We’ve got a group of five- and six-year-old kids who come to skate here every Saturday,” Somerville says. “Then we have our camps every weekend for anyone that wants to learn to skate. I’d say like ages 8 to 12 are probably the ones who we see there the most. But then we’ve also got a dad crew that comes in to skate sometimes. There are a lot of parents with their kids. It’s cool.” 

SkaterApolis, photo by Patrick Strait

While the unique location has brought in new skaters to SkaterApolis over the past several months, the park is also helping to drive new business inside of the mall, which, for all intents and purposes, has been declared dead more than once. 

“It was definitely a concern,” Somerville says of the possibility of the mall closing. “Once I met with the owners and realized that wasn’t in the cards, I felt a lot better. It’s funny because skateboarders used to get chased out of the mall. Now, we’re the ones funneling traffic into the food court and some of the other businesses like Zumiez and Spencer’s that kind of cater to the skater community.” 

Aside from being a hangout for skaters, Somerville is quick to point out that the positive impact that skateboarding has on kids (and grown-ups) is one of the things he hopes to continue to expand on moving forward. 

“We’re looking to keep doing more lessons and camps, because it helps kids to gain confidence,” he explains. “It teaches kids who are impatient, patience. Like, you can edit Instagram all you want, but when it comes down to skating in real life, how good you skate is all about how much time you put into it.” 

Somerville says the family plans to expand on their success at the mall this summer, forging partnerships with various outdoor community skateparks across the Twin Cities area and hosting skate competitions at the park. 

“We’re also the only skatepark that is air conditioned,” he quips. 

Regardless of what the future holds in terms of growth or popularity in the local skating community, Somerville remains focused on his goal of making skateboarding more accessible. 

“I watched my kids for two years have to sit on iPads for their school and how they interacted with each other,” he says. “I saw there was this younger generation that was just glued to their phones and their iPads. I wanted to find a way to get kids off their devices and on to skateboards.”

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