Jeff Jardine

Will numbers pan out for new roller rink in Modesto?

Jeremy Matthews is pictured at his home in Modesto, Calif. on Monday afternoon (08-03-15). His wife's family owned Roller King until it closed. Matthews is looking at the possibility of opening a new skating rink in Modesto.
Jeremy Matthews is pictured at his home in Modesto, Calif. on Monday afternoon (08-03-15). His wife's family owned Roller King until it closed. Matthews is looking at the possibility of opening a new skating rink in Modesto.

Like so many other Modestans, Jeremy Matthews fondly recalls the days and evenings he spent at the long-defunct Roller King skating rink on Briggsmore Avenue. Well, it almost was on Briggsmore Avenue, which is part of the reason it is long defunct.

Location was one problem. The rink sat hidden behind a shopping center on one side and a row of trees on another. Meanwhile, other venues opened and cut into Roller King’s birthday party business. And a changing society in which many kids found video games and texting more enjoyable than physical activity and actually talking to one another didn’t help.

Roller skating as an industry was on the decline long before Matthews’ mother-in-law, Cecilia Locke Michelini, closed Roller King’s doors in 2005, ending a 31-year-run. The building recently became home to the Center for Human Services. The trees are gone. The driveway access is better. You can now see it clearly from Briggsmore – and get to it as well.

Children today might find this difficult to believe, but roller skating once was so popular that Modesto boasted of two Roller Kings. The other, which closed in 1990, was in the building on Floyd Avenue where people now go to court to challenge traffic tickets.

Many folks, Matthews and his extended family among them, would love so see a rink return to the city. An ice skating rink, too. We haven’t had one of those since the Olympic Gold arena on Tully Road burned down in 1976. Before being converted to ice, it had been a roller rink.

Numerous letter writers to The Bee’s opinion pages periodically pine for the return of Roller King and an ice rink. A “Roller King Modesto – In Memoriam” page on Facebook boasts more than 900 “likes.” Likewise, go to The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page and read my Sunday column about the indoor electric go-kart racing business that will soon rev up in the old Gottschalks space in Century Center. The vast majority of those who commented wanted a roller rink, ice rink or both here again, and mentioned Roller King by name.

What they really clamor for are good, safe, wholesome things to do, like they had as children and want for their kids. Some will tell you they met their future spouses at Roller King. Residents talk about quality of life in the community, and the roller rink was part of that.

“Parents would drop their kids off when we opened at 10 a.m. and pick them up when we closed at 9,” Locke Michelini said.

Making no promises, Matthews, 34, would like to give them a roller rink again.

“There’s a lost generation of skaters here,” said Matthews, who is married to Taya Locke, one of Locke Michelini’s daughters. “I feel this is the last opportunity to bring it back. I’m in my mid-30s. I’m one of the last generation who grew up at Roller King.”

His mother-in-law agrees. But she’s well aware of the obstacles, including the decline of roller skating’s popularity. Though a rink – Power Play Sports Arena – opened in Ripon in 2008, Locke Michelini knows of at least 10 that went out of business if only because the land beneath them became worth more for other uses. And she’s still paying off debts the business incurred, she said, as she did everything possible to keep it going.

“It was our family business,” she said. “But it didn’t do much for our family (financially).”

So on one hand, she knows better than anyone how difficult it is to make a roller rink profitable, and cautions her son-in-law about the risk. On the other, she witnessed for decades the fun kids and family had at the rink, the birthday parties and other events.

What will it take? Start with the right location. Matthews said he inquired about the old Gottschalks store in Century Center but was told it was already leased (to MB2 Raceway, as it turned out). He would consider a new building, figuring a cost of $3 million for construction and all the equipment needed, including rental skates and other items. Leasing an existing building might work.

“(I’d) need a safe location where parents can comfortably leave young teenagers without fear of the surrounding area,” Matthews said. “If not building a new facility, I need a location that already has the unimpeded rink space (no roof-support columns), or a landlord who will allow building modifications to accommodate that space.”

He figures he’d need at minimum of 30,000 square feet, including room for a sizable snack bar and 70 feet by 170 feet of open skating space.

“This rink size will accommodate events for the Special Olympics,” he said. He said he’ll seek design input from special-needs families and professionals, including adaptive PE and special education teachers.

To turn a profit, he figures he’d need 3,500 skaters per week paying roughly $15 for admission and skate rental, or through parties and special events, plus whatever they spend in the snack bar.

Is that all doable in Modesto? Scores of people in Modesto say “yes.” But they aren’t the ones who would take on the financial risk.

So Matthews continues to pencil it out while hunting for the right location. It can’t be hidden behind a strip mall and a forest. And, of course, he needs financing to make it happen.

He also knows that by waiting too much longer to try, roller skating here might be completely forgotten.