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Residents rally around Over-the-Rhine's roller rink as it faces an uncertain future

Nick Swartsell
Skaters Will Osborne, David Moody and Lucia Duque enjoy a Friday afternoon open skate session at the Over-the-Rhine Rec Center.

Jacqueline Dean remembers when the city built the roller rink in Over-the-Rhine in the 1970s — the feeling of freedom she had as a teenager gliding across the hardwood floor on her custom skates; the determination to get back out on the rink and learn more even after she fractured an ankle; the lights and colors and the diverse music, from Elton John to funk and jazz. And most of all, the many friends she met at the rink they once called "the Hub."

"When they had skating parties, I was there all the time, every day," Dean says. "When we got out of school, we'd go to the Hub."

Dean still lives in Over-the-Rhine. And the rink is still there on Republic Street near Findlay Market. For now. But that could change soon as the Cincinnati Recreation Commission plans a new, larger facility on the site of the current rec center. The CRC and 3CDC, which is helping with the design of the new center, haven't decided if a roller rink will be included in the new facility.

CRC Director Daniel Betts says they are being very careful in considering what will go into the new center.

"We're a little ways away from making any real predictions on ultimately what is in and what is out," he says. "But our intent, from the city and the director and from 3CDC, as our partner, I truly believe, is to have multi-use spaces that would include a number of different activities, to include skating as well."

The CRC has been seeking public input and assessing the plan for the last 18 months, Betts says. But the plan is still a long way from completion. So far, designs are only about 50% finished, and the roughly $30 million the project could cost has yet to be raised.

If it came to fruition, the proposal would be a departure for the CRC.

'It doesn't get any better'

At 20,000-square feet, the new facility would be twice the size of the CRC's current largest centers in Price Hill and Mt. Washington, and would aim to draw people from the surrounding region too — as far out as 25 miles away for special events. That orientation would align with insights the CRC gained in comprehensive planning efforts it undertook in 2019 that Betts says encouraged the commission to look at larger facilities that are hubs for multiple neighborhoods. Betts says that could require some strategic changes in the way the CRC undertakes it mission.

Some Cincinnatians have rallied behind the rink, holding skating events and advocating for its inclusion in the new building. Downtown resident Morgan Riguad is one of those organizers. She says the rink is a vital cultural and social hub for residents of Over-the-Rhine and nearby neighborhoods.

"It's a multi-cultural space," she says. "It's a multi-generational space. People are coming together in rinks and meeting people they otherwise wouldn't meet."

On a recent Saturday, Nicole Stewart brought her grandchildren to the rink for the first time for one of the events Rigaud helped organize. Stewart has fond memories of roller skating at a now-defunct roller rink in Walnut Hills decades ago. And she loves that families can come and use the Over-the-Rhine rink for very little money.

"Five bucks to skate, skates included?" she says. "It doesn't get any better than that."

Roller skating's popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades. It peaked in the 1940s, when something like 5,000 rinks operated across the country. Its popularity rose again in the 1970s and '80s, especially among Black communities in urban neighborhoods.

These days, rinks are fewer and farther between. While Downtown got a new pop-up outdoor rink last year, indoor, permanent rinks are rare. That, advocates say, makes the Over-the-Rhine location all the more vital. It's a place where roller skating professionals who win competitions and consult on Hollywood movies come to practice and hold court.

Nick Swartsell
Jacqueline Dean has been coming to the Over-the-Rhine Rec Center's roller rink since the city built in the 1970s. She says it's a vital part of the neighborhood's fabric.

More importantly, Over-the-Rhine residents like Dean say it's a place where young people can get exercise, connect with their community and pour themselves into something productive and fun.

"That rec center is part of getting to know one another," she says. "The kids need to be where they can get to know one another and get to know other people, know different culture and everything; making friends. They need to know all that stuff instead of growing up in a neighborhood where there's nothing for them to do but be in the streets."

First-time roller rink user Stewart, meanwhile, says she and her grandkids will be back now that they know the rink is there.

"I've been coming to Findlay Market for years and I've never even known that this was located back here," she says. "I'm very happy for this. We'll be back here probably every other Saturday."

Advocates say they're continuing to meet with the CRC and 3CDC to discuss the rink's future. CRC Director Betts says the commission and 3CDC are currently in the planning stages for the new rec center and there's still plenty of time for community input.

Nick Swartsell is a general assignment reporter for WVXU. Before his current role, he worked on the station’s Cincinnati Edition program as assistant producer and was a journalist for outlets in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Texas prior to that. When he’s not reporting, he likes exploring places he probably shouldn’t on his bike, taking photos, and growing corn, tomatoes and peppers that are, in all honesty, much too hot for any practical use. He is from Hamilton. You can find him at @nswartsell on Twitter.