Balto. Co. roller rink began with great hopes, now dashed

Exasperated officials want to shut it down

April 16, 2010|By Nick Madigan, Mary Gail Hare and Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

When Barney Wilson was growing up in West Baltimore, one of seven children of a city police officer, there was no recreation center in his neighborhod and few entertainment options he or his siblings could afford.

It was with that memory fresh in his mind that Wilson, now the principal of Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute, opened a roller skating rink in Woodlawn 16 months ago. One of four partners who sank $1 million into Skateworks, Wilson hoped to create a place where "multiple generations can hang out."

The way Wilson saw it, the rink could be a model for businesses in urban centers — "if only the police and community can work together."

But the rink has been bedeviled by problems since it opened in December 2008, and the police are anything but pleased with the place. Huge crowds, fights, disturbances and arrests have been a regular feature of closing time on raucous Friday nights, and exasperated Baltimore County officials now have given Skateworks' owners until Wednesday to come up with a plan to prevent such disruptions. If they don't, the officials say, the rink will be closed.

"I am from a police family, and I understand clearly their concerns," Wilson, a 51-year-old father of two, said Friday. "At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home safely."

That's not always what has happened at Skateworks. Police officers have reported unruly crowds, fistfights, thefts and general rowdiness, mostly outside the rink in an industrial park off Whitehead Road as the crowds leave at midnight. Some nights, police say, hundreds of teenagers dart across the six lanes of Security Boulevard to congregate at a bus stop.

Police have been called to the rink or its immediate environs 196 times in the past 16 months. A year ago, two men were shot about 3 a.m. in a parking lot behind the rink.

The reports of violence have thrown a cloud over a place that, at its inception, had the full support of county officials and the community.

"This had all the greatest of intentions originally, and it just got out of hand," said Baltimore County police Cpl. Michael Hill. He said Friday that the situation has improved since a code enforcement hearing April 7, during which police officers testified about a long series of violent incidents and disturbances.

"We have not seen the problems since the hearing," Hill said. "It doesn't appear that they've had the late parties that were causing all these problems. There have been no serious calls for service, that we're aware of, since April 7."

Two days after that hearing — on a Friday, when the rink typically sees its biggest crowds — a reporter observed no altercations or arrests among the approximately 600 patrons. Many appeared to be middle-school students. Fifteen security guards were on duty, supervised by two of Skateworks' owners, Devin Johnson and Carolyn Pratt.

Before they could enter, patrons were asked to take off their shoes for inspection, open bags and purses, and give up pick combs. Besides weapons or drugs, the guards also checked for anything that might suggest membership in a gang, such as do-rags, Johnson said.

Watched by a half-dozen surveillance cameras inside — another 10 scanned the grounds outdoors — teens gathered in clumps, some on the wooden rink to dance to a thumping bass, others at tables eating pizza and gulping Powerade. Some posed for pictures.

"Kids are going to be kids, whether they are here or in the mall," said Corey Bradford, a security guard who has worked at the rink for a year. He said he had broken up a few fights inside the building in the past, but that he and the other guards usually foresee a potential fracas and stop it before it escalates.

"They respect us," he said of the teens. "We know all of the kids by name."

Paisley Satchell, a 12-year-old student at Father Charles Hall Middle School in Baltimore, called Skateworks "a good place to socialize with others." Without it, she said, "I wouldn't have a social life."

Her aunt, Martha Parker, 46, waited for her at a table near the entrance, passing the time by reading a book. Parker said she takes her niece to the rink once a week, along with as many of the girl's friends as can fit into her Volkswagen.

For 12-year-olds, "there's no other place to go," Parker said. "Everybody's got to come every week."

Parker used to take Paisley to the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center Roller Skating Rink on Pennsylvania Avenue but stopped going because "it was terrible — dangerous."

She said more parents need to stay at Skateworks while their kids are there, rather than just dropping them off. "I would be devastated if they closed," she said.

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