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Seven years after Alix Rice's death, Amherst skate park memorial opens

A chain-link fence surrounds Amherst's first skate park, a vast series of deep concrete bowls and other challenging features poured into a parking lot behind the Northtown Center rink complex.

But the park, nearly six years in the making, will open to skateboarders, BMX riders and in-line skaters early next month.

The park is a gift to the community, and it is a living memorial to Alix Rice, an 18-year-old killed late on a summer night by a drunken driver as she rode her longboard.

"I hope to see a lot of smiles," Tammy Schueler, Alix's mother, said Friday as she sat at the park and imagined its Aug. 4 grand opening.

Schueler and a core group of volunteers, most unconnected to Rice before the accident, raised money for the project, coordinated with town officials, selected a location and arranged for the design and construction of the space. The builders of the Alix Rice Peace Park say they're glad to complete this legacy to Rice to serve the community for years to come.

"It's going to be overwhelming and rewarding and painfully sad and exciting, all at the same time, which is quite a mix of emotion," said Brian Duff, the nonprofit foundation's vice president and a Buffalo Sabres TV host.

Alexandria "Alix" Rice.

Schueler described Rice, her only child, as vivacious. "Her smile lit up a room, and it was contagious," Schueler said.

Alix loved to hike and ride her bicycle and swim, but around the age of 14 she took up riding a long skateboard, or longboard, after meeting some peers who were into it.

"She was pretty much a natural at it," her mother said.

Rice, 18, was riding the board late on July 8, 2011, on the shoulder of Heim Road on her way home from her job at a pizzeria, when she was struck and killed by a car driven by Dr. James Corasanti. It was about 1:30 a.m. when, Schueler said, she awoke to Amherst police pounding on her door.

"I ran downstairs and right outside hollering, 'Tell me everyone's OK, tell me everyone's OK,' " Schueler said. "And they said, 'Please, you need to come back in and sit down.' They said, 'It's your daughter, she's been hit by a hit-and-run driver and she didn't make it.' "

Schueler said she raced to the hospital where she met Rice's father, Richard, and saw her daughter lying on a gurney. "Yeah, that's how you get to say goodbye to your favorite person in the world," she said.

Corasanti faced five felony charges, including manslaughter, but the jury in a closely watched 2012 trial convicted him only of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated. Corasanti was sentenced to one year in jail. "We hoped for justice," Schueler said. "No, we never got it."

Schueler and Rice sued Corasanti and Transit Valley Country Club, where Corasanti drank before getting behind the wheel that night, reaching confidential agreements with both.

The extensive coverage of Rice's death and Corasanti's trial drove people like Duff and Jon Fulcher to reach out to Schueler to offer to help. "I think, instantly coming together for this, we've always had our own personal moments along the way where you felt like you had Alix watching over you," Duff said.

Now combined with Fran and Bob Knab, owners of Phatman Boards in the Town of Tonawanda, the newly formed Alix Rice Peace Park Foundation won a handful of larger grants and held concerts, auctions and other events to collect gratefully accepted small donations to pay for the park. By 2014, they had a location for the park just behind the Northtown Center and near the University at Buffalo North Campus.

It took more time to find the right design for the 10,000-square-foot park, and to find the contractors that could build it, led by construction director Steve Federico. Officials said it's the first California-style skate park in the area, with two skate-in bowls of different depths to serve skaters of different levels.

Skateboarders, skaters and bikers can ride railings and stairs and a bench-like feature, along with a slightly raised, circular element known as a manual pad. That pad has a peace sign stamped on it to honor Rice. Schueler also wrote her daughter's name and the name of her first longboard, "Herman," in wet cement in one corner.

Work has begun on site of Amherst skate park honoring Alix Rice

Estimates for the cost of building the park and getting it open are now near $500,000, Duff said. Organizers still are raising money for ongoing maintenance and liability insurance costs, while the town continues to own the land. It's a skate-at-your-own-risk park, open dawn to dusk.

"It's really going to be a nice showpiece," said Mary-Diana Pouli, executive director of Amherst's Youth and Recreation Department.

The park is not Schueler's only way of honoring her daughter. She speaks on victim impact panels that convicted drunken drivers are required to attend. She also helped to start a local chapter of the Compassionate Friends, a group of parents who have lost a child who provide support to people newly struggling with this pain.

The message is, she said, "You can survive. There is life after losing a child."

Corasanti, for his part, resumed his medical practice as a gastroenterologist after serving about eight months of his sentence. During his testimony at his criminal trial, Corasanti said he "felt personal guilt" that he was "not able to help someone I hurt." His attorney in the civil suit, Richard T. Sullivan, said in court that the physician was "deeply remorseful" for Rice's death.

Schueler said Corasanti has never sent her a letter or otherwise personally apologized for his actions. "It wouldn't have made a difference," she said.

Schueler and others also have pushed for the state Legislature to pass Alix's Law, which would tighten a loophole that critics say allows drunken drivers to hit someone, leave the scene without stopping and checking and never face full accountability. The bill has passed the state Senate repeatedly, but it is held up in the Assembly.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said attorneys in her chamber have concerns about language in the bill. She said she would like to see an Assembly-Senate conference committee hash out a compromise, but any action won't take place until next year at the earliest.

While the law is in limbo, the park is set to open in less than two weeks. Organizers hope to see children and adults skating and riding in a spirit matching Alix's own.

As Schueler looked out on the concrete park on a hot, blustery afternoon, her thoughts once again turned to her daughter.

"I think she's proud of me," she said.

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