Payson Wiers has had some of the biggest moments of his life on wheels.

When he was 30, he fell into a monthslong depression after his wife died of an aneurysm. He didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything until his mother suggested roller skating, something he loved as a teenager. So he started going to Happy Wheels Skate Center on Warren Avenue in Portland, where he came out of his funk, connected with old friends and made new ones. He’d also find romance at the rink, eventually remarrying. He taught his kids and some of his grandkids to skate there. He made lifelong friends and went to several weddings, and a few funerals, held at the cavernous rink.

Twenty-seven years after they met at Happy Wheels, Wiers and his wife, Susan, still zoom around the rink’s concrete floor on a regular basis. But their long love affair with the place will end Dec. 15, when Happy Wheels – the only roller rink still open in southern Maine – is scheduled to close after 46 years. Owner Paul White Co., a flooring business in Portland, is selling the building to a developer, though specific plans have not been made public.

The closing, announced Oct. 30 on Facebook, has left many longtime skaters mourning the impending loss. Some, including one of the rink’s managers and members of local roller derby leagues, are scrambling to see if they can open and run another roller rink in Greater Portland, perhaps in an existing warehouse or other large space. After Happy Wheels closes, only three year-round roller rinks will be left operating in Maine – in Auburn, Houlton and Caribou.

But even if a new Portland-area rink opens in another location, Happy Wheels’ history of creating lifetime bonds and a surrogate family for its skaters will be impossible to replace.

“I wouldn’t know any of my friends without this place. With all the changes in my life, this has been the one constant,” said Wiers, 57, of Gray, at a recent Tuesday night skating session. “They say you can’t pick your family, just your friends. But for so many of us, Happy Wheels and the friends we made there are family.”

Payson Wiers and his wife, Susan, skate together during a couples skate at Happy Wheels’ adult night. The couple met at Happy Wheels more than 25 years ago. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

ROLLING ALONG

Stories of lifelong relationships forged at Happy Wheels are not hard to find, especially since the closing was announced. Skaters wanting to savor its history and ambience have been packing the place all four days a week that it’s open. The same Tuesday night in early November that Wiers and his wife were there, Michelle Adams, 36, of Gorham had come out to reconnect with friends. She and her husband, Christopher Adams, met there as teens and have two teenage daughters now. When the couple were expecting their first daughter, they couldn’t decide between the names Reighley and Torrance, so they let Happy Wheels skaters vote on the names during the course of a weekend. Reighley won.

Christopher Adams began skating at Happy Wheels when he was a toddler, brought there by his mother, Tina Foster, who had started going there as a teen. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she met her second husband at the rink, and they’ve now been married 29 years. Plus, all three of Foster’s brothers were married – at least once – to women they met at Happy Wheels, which Foster says is “all my fault.”

From right, Laci Cummings, Devin Boisot and Max Foglio, 13-year-olds who are all in the eighth grade, sit at a table with their friends at Happy Wheels in the weeks after the closure was announced. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“My dad started taking me there to skate so I could stay out of trouble, and my brothers followed me there,” said Foster, 61, who grew up in Westbrook but now lives in Ohio. “It was a home away from home for all of us. ”

Happy Wheels is in a 20,000-square-foot metal building, built in 1973 amid a mix of industrial and retail properties on Warren Avenue near the Maine Turnpike. Inside, the focal point is the 70-by-150-foot rink floor, colored bright blue by protective sealant with giant banks of speakers and a few glittery disco balls hanging overhead. There’s a concession area with snacks for sale and tables and booths for people to sit, a large counter with hundreds of pairs of rental skates on display and a multi-colored carpet throughout. The decor, while clean and bright, hasn’t been updated in about 25 years, staff members said.

On a recent Tuesday, the place was packed with longtime skaters, and a few new ones, at the weekly adults-only night. The lights were mostly dimmed as the speakers blared a mix of country, disco and older pop tunes. Every once in a while, a voice over a loudspeaker would announce a couples skate, where one skater can ask another to skate. It’s a tradition at Happy Wheels that has facilitated more than a few romances. Some couples skated side-by-side without touching, others held hands and some had their arms around each other.

During the adult night, there were at least a dozen or more people who had been skating there since the 1970s or early ’80s. Those were the years when the popularity of roller rinks and roller skating was at a high, said Jim McMahon, director of Roller Skating Association International, which promotes and tracks the roller skating industry. In that time period, there were an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 roller rinks in the United States, compared to about 1,250 today, McMahon said. Many Happy Wheels regulars talk of growing up at a time – from the late ’50s through the ’70s – when roller skating was just something most kids did for fun, either around the neighborhood or at a local rink. The peak of roller skating’s grip on pop culture was probably in the early ’80s, when roller disco was all the rage.

A company started by William Faulkingham Sr. built Happy Wheels and ran at least six other roller rinks across the state beginning in the 1950s, in Gardiner, Augusta, Winslow, Bangor, South Portland and Scarborough, all of which are now closed. The most recent rink closures in Maine were the Topsham Rollerworld in 2015 and Great Skates Bangor in 2016, but those had other owners.

Many roller rink closures around the county were the result of rising real estate values and taxes, McMahon said. Rink owners found that, after the value of their land and building doubled or tripled over 20 or 30 years, it made more sense to sell the place than pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes while charging $6.50 a head for roller skating. But there has been a slight comeback in the last decade, with about six new rinks built each year and existing spaces converted to roller rinks about once every couple of months, McMahon said. Roller derby leagues have helped fuel that increase, as well as entrepreneurs realizing roller skating can be part of a larger entertainment complex, like a fun park or a movie cineplex, McMahon said. It’s similar to the resurgence of bowling, with many new alleys offering additional entertainment like bars, restaurants, movies or live music.

FUTURE UNCERTAIN

It’s unclear why Happy Wheels is closing or what the property’s future might be. Paul C. White, who owns the Paul White Co. with his brother Jonathan, declined to be interviewed for this story or to disclose the building’s new owner.

Teenagers leave Happy Wheels after a Saturday skating session. After over 45 years, southern Maine’s only roller rink is closing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

According to city records, the taxable value of Happy Wheels’ building and property is $1.42 million, and the annual taxes are more than $33,000. The Paul White Co. bought the rink in 2007 from the original owners for $1.45 million, the records show. Happy Wheels employees say they were told only that the building is being sold to a developer and that future plans include subdividing the space.

Longtime Happy Wheels general manager Danny Dyer says that business at the rink has not been bad in recent years, but certainly not as brisk as it was 30 years ago. He said that in “good years” the place might see 250 skaters on a Friday night and 300 during a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Before the rink’s closure was announced, attendance was averaging about 130 on Friday nights and maybe 200 on weekend afternoons, he said. Admission is $6.50 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions and $7 for adult nights on Tuesday.

Dyer has seen the ups and downs of the roller rink business firsthand. His father, Sid Dyer, managed several of the Faulkingham family’s Maine rinks, including the Portland Happy Wheels. Dyer himself worked at the Faulkinghams’ South Portland Rollerdrome and Scarborough Happy Wheels before taking over the Portland location about 20 years ago. With grandchildren living at his home, he will now have to find a new job.

“The skating part of the business has certainly declined, so we rent the space for Zumba, we have roller derby leagues now, we do other things,” said Dyer, 72. “Sometimes we have a super good year, but then the economy goes bad and people just do what they can afford to do. ”

The rinks that are still open in Maine differ from Happy Wheels in that none are in places with commercial real estate as valuable as Portland’s. Dan Larrivee, whose family has owned the RolloDrome in Auburn since 1954, said the fact that his rink’s building is now paid off is a big reason it’s stayed in business. Also, he and his sister and co-owner, Rachel Potvin, both work there full time. The owners of Happy Wheels rely on a staff of managers and employees to run it.

“It’s not a booming business; we have a lot of peaks and valleys in terms of people coming in,” said Larrivee, 62. “I’ve read articles about rinks where, at some point, the property becomes more valuable than the business. It’ll probably happen to me someday.”

FINDING HOME, AGAIN

The news of Happy Wheels closing has prompted efforts to create a new place to skate in Greater Portland.

One is headed by Derek Fitzgerald, a 38-year-old part-time manager at Happy Wheels who started skating there when he was 2 years old. Fitzgerald said he had been talking to the Whites about trying to buy the rink himself, hoping to get investors and planning to mortgage his home. But the talks went nowhere, and Fitzgerald was told in October that the Whites would be selling to someone else.

Derek Fitzgerald hugs Taylor Hart at one of the last Happy Wheels’ adult nights. Fitzgerald is the session manager at Happy Wheels and has been coming to the rink since he was a child. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Fitzgerald, who has a full-time information technology job, said he’s asked about leasing Happy Wheels from the new owners and running it as a roller rink a while longer. But he said he was told there are already plans to subdivide the building. He’s also been talking to steel structure companies and real estate companies, to see if he might be able build a new rink, and to painters, electricians and other tradesmen about in-kind donations of labor.

McMahon, at Roller Skating Association International, said the average cost of building a new roller rink the size of Happy Wheels is about $2.5 million. Fitzgerald says he knows finding a new place to open or build a rink in Greater Portland will be “difficult,” to say the least. But he shares the sentiment of many Happy Wheels regulars that the skaters are a family, and they need a home.

“Some of the diehards will go to Auburn or places in Massachusetts to skate, but the rest, the average Joes, will have no place to go,” Fitzgerald said.

Jes Levesque rests her holographic skates on one of the benches at Happy Wheels. Levesque recently got into skating and said now they will just have to travel further in order to keep skating. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The 100 members of Maine Roller Derby, a woman’s league, were “devastated” by the news of Happy Wheels closing and are scrambling to find another local option for their matches, said Heather Steeves, a league member. Steeves said the league had been using Happy Wheels for 13 years, at least three times a week. She said the league’s last game at Happy Wheels will be at 5 p.m. Dec. 14 , and she hopes a good crowd will come out to watch. Admission is $8. The league is encouraging anyone with ideas about where they might skate to email [email protected]

Casco Bay Roller Derby, which has about 25 men and women as members, is also looking for a new place to compete, said Laura Murphy of Biddeford, the league’s president. Murphy said her league has been in contact with Maine Roller Derby and other groups in hopes of working together to find somewhere to skate, maybe in an empty warehouse, gym or other large space. Murphy said she and others involved in the effort have been reaching out to roller derby groups in other cities who have been forced to find new places to skate, including a group in San Diego that built its own outdoor track.

Murphy said that, in the short term, she and the others she is working with would like to find a place for roller derby matches to continue. But the long-term goal is broader.

“The dream would be that we can somehow provide what Happy Wheels did,” Murphy said. “We’d like to be able to find a place where the whole community can skate.”

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