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Renovations in motion for former Wheels roller rink

Peering through the glass doors of Wheels Fun Park’s main building, it’s hard to imagine that the empty roller rink once teemed with skaters. The ticket stands are bare, save for a box of masks from when the building was used as a COVID-19 vaccination site. Only a funky eighties-patterned carpet hints at the vibrant space that once stood within the East Durham community.

But the eight-acre property that housed Wheels Fun Park will soon get a new lease on life. The rink could reopen as soon as next spring, said Mary Unterreiner, public information and communications manager at Durham Parks and Recreation. 

At a City Council work session on Feb. 23, Durham Parks and Recreation laid out plans for the site and described a broader vision for expanded recreation facilities in East Durham. The project, Splash & Play, combines renovations to the existing roller skating rink with visions for an aquatics center featuring a lap pool, a waterslide, and a lazy river. It also includes anticipated improvements to two nearby parks, East End and Long Meadow Parks.

The architectural firm DTW Architects and Planners, Ltd. has been hired to bring the rink up to building code and ADA standards. Parks and Recreation is also selecting an independent contractor to manage day-to-day operations of the facility, to be announced later this month. 

Wheels Fun Park closed in 2020 after nearly four decades of operation, and was later purchased by the city. Last May, officials unveiled plans for an aquatics center at the site at a proposed cost of $31 million dollars. Keeping the roller skating rink wasn’t part of the original plan, said Unterreiner. That changed after community members made their demands known to the city council last summer, attending meetings with signs and speakers in hopes of bringing back the skating rink. 

Durham resident Shannetta Burris spoke to the “desperate need” for recreational spaces for young people at a Feb. 9 City Council work session. 

“It is critical that we retain facilities like Wheels and create similar places as well,” she said. “I hope this council will explore innovative strategies to ensure that money is not a barrier for residents to utilize these spaces.”

Responding to public interest, Parks and Recreation formed a resident steering committee for those interested in preserving the roller skating rink last fall. They met in October and November to discuss the project and develop selection criteria for a rink operator. Other community engagement efforts included mail-home surveys and pop-up workshops. Some residents have been dissatisfied with communication and outreach efforts, though, raising equity-related concerns about the process during recent city council meetings. 

On Feb. 23, Durham Parks and Recreation director Wade Walcutt reiterated the department’s engagement efforts. He also unveiled the concept design for the former Wheels site, which incorporates the roller rink alongside an aquatics park and a community event space. Other components of the original Wheels Fun Park are not part of this plan.

“Some of the existing site features like the batting cages, the go kart track… didn’t float to the top after that process in the way that the roller rink did,” said Unterreiner. “We’re still flexible and open to work with the community.”

A third phase of community engagement will be underway soon as officials hammer out the final details of the project. Parks and Recreation estimates that construction of the aquatics park will begin in 2025, after a design and construction firm is selected.

At the recent work session, council members expressed broad support for Splash & Play. Several emphasized its potential to advance racial equity in Durham by providing recreational outlets to underserved communities. Some, including council members Javiera Caballero and Jillian Johnson, expressed uncertainty about the high price tag. 

While much of the Splash & Play budget must still be approved, some council members praised the project. “This is a transformative project, and I think that it is absolutely worth this kind of investment to get this level of facilities and opportunities for our residents,” said council member Johnson. “And I’m committed to figuring out how to make that happen.”

Above: Wheels Family Fun Park has been shuttered since 2020, but the city has new plans for the site. Photos by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal 

Sevana Wenn
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