Charlotte has no permanent indoor roller rinks. Why?
North Carolina's largest city hasn't had a rink in years, and yet skaters in smaller towns often have a place to go. So what does it take to open a new facility for an old-school activity?
Here’s a line in a story that caught my eye a few weeks ago:
Charlotte hasn’t had a permanent indoor [roller] skating rink in nearly two years.
Charlotte’s got a lot. It has more than 30 breweries, 8 Jamaican restaurants, 6 art museums, 6 bowling alleys, 4 Outback steakhouses, 2 statues of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and one car vending machine. You know what it doesn’t have? A permanent indoor roller rink. None! Not a one. AND YOU CALL YOURSELF WORLD CLASS.
I came across this scrap of information while reading about a temporary rink that’s coming to Camp North End. I also learned that a few Black women are trying to open up a new indoor rink. “All of us were skaters,” says Brandi Fox, one of the three entrepreneurs behind Rollin’ Clt Rink & Lounge, a mobile service that brings rinks and skates to you. When she was growing up in the 2000s, Charlotte had three indoor rinks. Today, they’re all gone.
I love roller skating. I grew up whizzing around a rink in my small hometown in Ohio. Now, my wife and I take our children to elementary school skate nights. I wait for them to take breaks, then I get out there with my rollerblades and show those kids who’s boss.
We’d been going to Skate World in Kernersville, but it burned down at the end of July. So our new home rink is Skateland USA West in Greensboro. It’s sort of on the island of misfit businesses, stuck between a fencing company and The Barn Dinner Theater (which, surprise, is the oldest continuously-running dinner theater in America!).
The last time I was there, obviously impressing everyone with my skating prowess, I felt a bit of confusion about how roller rinks work. I’m not talking about how the skating part functions, which is in itself quite remarkable, since everyone seems to know what to do and which direction to go without really being told. (There’s a name for this: spontaneous order, which is a favorite theory among economists who aren’t fans of central planning.) Rather, there seemed to be a bit of a paradox happening. Roller skating seems to be more popular than it’s been in years, thanks to TikTok and a boost from people looking to get outside during the pandemic. Yet new rinks aren’t popping up all over the place. Most of them seem to be decades old. So if there’s more demand, why isn’t there more supply? And why doesn’t North Carolina’s largest city, a city of nearly 900,000 people, have a permanent indoor rink anywhere within its city limits?
The First Roller Skater Immediately Wrecked
Let’s go back. Way back. Roller skating, as A Thing, started in 1735. A Belgian inventor named John Joseph Merlin showed off shoes with wheels on them at a party. The first roller skating accident happened moments later, when Merlin lost control and crashed into a mirror.
Ads for roller skates were appearing in the Raleigh News & Observer in the late 1800s, and a few rinks had popped up by then. In 1964, Doris and Sonny Jenkins built one of the more unusual businesses on Topsail Beach: A post office on the ground floor, and the Topsail Island Skating Rink upstairs. It’s still open.
Rinks had a role in the civil rights movement—years before the Greensboro sit-ins, protesters in Chicago used a similar strategy to desegregate a whites-only rink there. Compton’s Skateland helped give rise to hip-hop and N.W.A. In the east, a rink in Charlotte became a temporary home to televangelist Jim Bakker’s congregation after his ouster from PTL. "Now we really are holy rollers," he said to a group of about 200 people at a rink on South Boulevard in 1988. "They've finally got us in the roller rink where we belong."
“The ‘80s were the heyday. The ‘90s were kind of a struggle,” says Billy Thompson, the Vice President of the National Rollerskating Association who also owns three Kate’s skating rinks near Charlotte. After that, he says, “the shit hit the fan.”
And yet, many old rinks are still around.
The small town rink seems to be alive and well. Want that same vibe to come to Charlotte? Good luck with that. “I think Elon Musk is the only one who could come into Charlotte and open a rink,” says Thompson.
Roller Skating and Barbecue = Charlotte Kryptonite
I did a bunch of research here. I plotted out every single roller rink in North Carolina, some 45 in all, which are almost all located in suburbs or small towns. Eden. Wallace. Burlington. Shelby. Rocky Mount (!) has two. So does Greensboro, on the outskirts of town.
The locations themselves reminded me of something that I wrote a long time ago about Charlotte’s lack of barbecue stands:
The best barbecue is cheap. It takes wood to fire the smoker, and woodpiles take more space. By law, you can’t prepare barbecue in the same place you smoke it. That takes more space. In Charlotte, land isn’t plentiful. You’ll pay more for it and get less. That makes food cost more. So you’ll find the best deal on good barbecue in out-of-the-way places, where life costs less and the acreage is easier to come by. The type of barbecue joint you see in Shelby, Lexington, or Down East, the little wood-frame restaurant that’s been smoking pork with the family recipe for decades, just never materialized here. “They exist where they exist for a reason,” says Kathleen Purvis, The Charlotte Observer’s food editor, “and that reason does not exist in Charlotte.”
Like barbecue stands, most roller rinks are family owned. They’re labors of love, and places that have been open for a long time. They sit on relatively cheap parcels of land, and operate on fairly thin margins and require small staffs and long hours. Old ones are beloved, and hang on in out of the way places. This is not a new phenomenon. When a rink on E. Morehead Street in Charlotte closed way back in 1976, the owner bemoaned the shift away from the city.
So, how is it exactly that roller rinks are still hanging on in small towns, but not in the big cities? Billy Thompson, the owner of Kate’s three skating rinks, has some insight on that.
There’s No Affordable Housing For Roller Rinks, Either
“My grandfather, John Grice, played professional baseball for the Charlotte Hornets back in the day,” Thompson says. In the 1960s, John and his wife Kate talked about building a place where the kids from their church could go and hang out. Their first rink opened in Lowell in 1961.
In the 1990s, there were nine Kate’s rinks, including in Charlotte, Salisbury, and Myrtle Beach. Eventually, many of them closed. The Huntersville and Salisbury locations were under-performing, and their land had become more valuable, so they closed and the property was sold. In Charlotte, a Kate’s rink on Old Pineville Road stood in the way of the light rail, and was demolished to make way for it.
Property values were just one of the things that killed off rinks. “In the ‘90s and 2000s, you could bring a busload of kids in and drop them off,” Thompson says. “After COVID, there’s always some sort of argument or fight among kids.” As a result, a lot of rinks changed their policies and at least one, Skateland in Statesville, closed because of “blatant disrespect, racial and confrontational views.” At Kate’s, if you’re under 18, you can’t be left unsupervised unless you own your own skates. The sessions are shorter. It’s adults only from 7-11 p.m. on Saturdays. Family nights on Thursdays were eliminated. Thompson’s rinks still have a family atmosphere, but more than ever, they’re relying on adults. At many rinks, families make up 95 to 100 percent of the business. At Kate’s, that number is down to about 70 percent, with adults-only business making up the rest.
The most important thing, Thompson says, is just getting people in the door. At some old-school rinks, admissions can make up around 80 percent of revenue. At Kate’s rinks, that’s closer to 40 or 50 percent. There, they have bulked-up pro shops that generate a lot of money. They also get a good chunk of cash from rentals, game rooms, and novelties. But not every rink is the same. “In Gastonia, we have lower rentals because there’s more of a skating culture,” Thompson says. “When someone owns their own stakes, they come back.”
Even so, the costs keep going up, and the money is harder to find. The price of insurance is a big issue, he says, because people like to sue roller rinks. Banks are wary of lending money to rinks because during the pandemic, they were one of the last places to reopen. There’s a lot of competition now from places like trampoline parks and go-kart tracks. Zoning restrictions make things tough.
And, of course, there’s the real estate and skyrocketing construction costs. “Building a rink is the last thing that I’m looking for,” Thompson says. “If you tried to build a free-standing building that’s open, you’re looking at a minimum of $4 million, and that’s without the land.” Instead, Thompson has been upfitting his existing rinks. He’s added $80,000 worth of new carpet. He’s spent $200,000 in renovations post-COVID in Indian Trail alone because he thinks, inevitably, another downturn is coming. “This will come crashing down,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing all of the work to my facilities now while I have cash flow.”
Even so, interest in opening new rinks has never been higher. “We had 65 future operators attend a trade show a few weeks ago,” Thompson says. “In some years, we only had five.” But then people start looking at the financials and realize that their dream of owning a rink may not work out. “We want the industry to grow and be successful, but we don’t want people to lose their livelihoods either.”
Kate’s feels old-school, which is true to the bible belt influence of Thompson’s grandparents. He has no plans to start selling alcohol (and according to state law, he probably couldn’t). “In Charlotte, you couldn’t do my business model,” Thompson says. “You’d be forced into creating a club.”
Which is exactly what Rollin Clt’ is hoping for.
“It’s a Vibe”
In 2016, Kendria Holmes decided she wanted to open a rink, but ran into all of the problems that Thompson describes. It wasn’t until 2020, when she connected with Sh’niqua Ussery and Brandi Fox, and the idea started to come together. Fox was a serial entrepreneur. Holmes was former pro basketball player. Ussery was an Army veteran who’d worked in a corporate job. At first, they were looking for about three acres of land, but quickly learned that it’d cost somewhere between $2.5 million and $5 million to get it.
They decided on a different approach: Taking a roller rink on the road. Now, their mobile service will come in, set up a surface, bring music and rental skates, and let people hang out. Last year, Rollin Clt’ opened an outdoor space near NoDa. “It’s a vibe,” Fox says. A lot of people come for the music and the people watching. Plus, she says, “there aren’t many professional spots that minorities can go to.”
The plan, Fox says, is to open an indoor rink in Charlotte by next September. They’re trying to raise money, asking for donations, and hoping for small business funding from Charlotte’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. It’s going to be hard, but it’s also not going to be like Kate’s. The plan is to make the rink into a lounge with “a grown up sexy lounge feel,” Fox says. The decor? Futurist. “Think: Skating rink EPCOT,” Fox says.
The goal isn’t to be another Dave and Buster’s, Fox says, but to be a part of the community, and they’re already bringing back a culture that had once gone dormant in Charlotte. “People have bought skates to come to us,” Fox says. “It’s a loving experience.”