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Skating fans seek retread for Wheels

With its skating rink, go-karts, mini-golf and a snack bar, Wheels Family Fun Park was once among Durham’s most popular venues for parties and community-building events. 

Now, the city’s plans to build a swimming pool on the eight-acre property have sparked the concerns of Durham residents. At a Monday evening city council meeting, nearly a dozen gathered to express their hopes of keeping the rink alive for generations to come.

Wheels closed in 2020 after four decades of operation, and was later purchased by the city. Last month, city parks and recreation officials announced a $31 million project to install a swimming pool on the Hoover Road site. However, the plans left Durhamites with few answers regarding the fate of the beloved roller rink.

At Monday’s meeting, speakers highlighted Wheels as a safe space for marginalized youth. Allison Swaim teaches at Riverside High School, where the majority of her students are Black and Latino. As an assignment, she asked her students to design a Google map of their favorite places in Durham. Most included Wheels.

“I would love to see this become— stay—a public resource, that our community could have joy together in,” Swaim said. “So please look into what it would take to save this facility that already exists.”

Seven of the night’s speakers represented Bull City Roller Derby, a Durham-based skating group whose members spoke about the sense of community they’d found on the rink. Roller Derby member Erin Bueno says skating at Wheels helped her battle major depressive disorder and become more comfortable with her identity.

It saved my life in terms of helping me through my first depressive bout in 2018 and then also giving me a healthy outlet to again, transmute my feelings into something that’s more productive,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And it gave me a way to find myself as a queer person.” 

The Raleigh-Durham Skaters’ Association, headed by Eddie Watson, also hosted events at the rink. Watson, who leads weekly skating classes in Raleigh, has seen increased attendance as the pastime surged in popularity during the pandemic. Some skaters are young women whose interest was piqued by TikTok trends. Others are elderly folks that have been skating for decades. “Between the people, the music, the atmosphere, it’s all creating the juices to inspire, or to just be a part of something,” he said in an interview.

On Monday, some council members seemed receptive to citizens’ concerns. After the meeting, council member Mark-Anthony Middleton called Wheels  “part of the DNA of Durham,” and said he was open to continuing the dialogue.

“I would love to see if we could preserve it,” he said.

Several speakers said that, as a year-round venue, a roller rink could draw in more revenue than a seasonal aquatic center. Middleton expressed that, though finances would be taken into consideration, value to the Durham community was of greater importance to him.

At a Thursday afternoon city council work session, Middleton said that making a decision about preserving the skating rink would be “premature.”

“It’s way too early to suggest we’re going to go into the skating business as a city, at this point,” Middleton said. “We might, but I think the staff should have the opportunity to look at this.” 

Council member Jillian Johnson also stressed the importance of getting more input.

“I think we should wait until we have a full picture of what the community wants” before we make a decision,” Johnson said. 

Mary Unterreiner, public information and communication manager for Durham parks and recreation, said in an interview that plans for the former Wheels site are still underway. 

Unterreiner said the department has sought community engagement for the project through pop-up events, presentations and a survey that received 500 responses from Durhamites. 

Outreach will continue this summer, and parks and recreation will present its recommendation for the site to the city council in September, she said. Construction for the aquatics center will take several years, and the facility will not be open to the public for an estimated three to four years, she added.

Unterreiner stressed that while funding has been allocated to the aquatic center in the proposed city budget, the pool and a skating rink are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

“It is not an either-or situation,” Unterreiner said. “The two can absolutely coexist right now. It is a matter of priority.” 

“What we do know is, what we have the funding for is the aquatics facility—the aquatic center—at the Wheels Fun Park site. But that’s not to say that there couldn’t be a future where the existing amenities or the skating rink also exist. And that could be a really exciting feature.”

Above: Photo of the Wheels Family Fun Park — The 9th Street Journal. Photo of Erin Bueno The 9th Street Journal’s Ana Young.