Derek Fitzgerald at 16, working at the Happy Wheels rental booth. Now 39, he is looking to build and bring back the Happy Wheels name after the last location, in Portland, closed in 2019. Courtesy / Derek Fitzgerald

WESTBROOK — A self-described “rink rat” is looking to revive the Happy Wheels roller skating rink for the sake of his skate family and the rink’s legacy.

Happy Wheels developer Derek Fitzgerald, 39, is a Westbrook resident, working at IDEXX. He first put on skates at a Happy Wheels rink at three years old. When the rink closed, it was the first time since he was 16 that he wasn’t working around skating on top of his other job, he said.

“My friends joke that I came out of the womb with skates on,” Fitzgerald said. “I was accepted at the rink. It’s a skating family, you know? You can’t replace those memories if you’re a rink rat.”

Derek Fitzgerald skates in the Portland Happy Wheels. Since 16, the now-39-year-old has worked just about every job in the rink and often filled in at the other locations. Courtesy / Derek Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was already looking at taking over the Portland location last year before the landowner unexpectedly sold it last December. That is when he decided to put his all into building a new rink.

“We didn’t even know the building was for sale. It wasn’t listed,” he said. “They said they were closing because the new owner is redeveloping it and doesn’t want the rink. That November is when they also told the manager, who is 73. He has done that his whole life.”

The new Happy Wheels, which saw Planning Board approval in May, is being built from the ground up at 84 Warren Ave., about a mile away from the former Portland location.

Fitzgerald expects to break ground this spring.

In the meantime, he has been buying new equipment and pieces of the original Happy Wheels to recreate the memories and keep a place for people to make new ones. His garage, he said, is filled with equipment new and old for the rink.

“The look and layout will be very similar for those that remember the Portland rink,” he said. “It’ll have a little bit of a more modern look, revamped concessions and new attractions, but we are not sure exactly how as that depends on the budget.

Fitzgerald said he can pull off the revamp.

“I’ve been to over 100 rinks across the country. I know what works and what doesn’t, and when you have someone who that is their passion, they do it better,” he said. “Because of COVID, this summer roller skate sales have been through the roof across the world. Manufacturers are out of stock. The distributors and rinks are as well. Skating is seeing a comeback, but it never left either.”

Fitzgerald said he is not alone in his passion for Happy Wheels.

“It was a huge part of my childhood,” said Payson Wier, 59, a Gray resident who grew up skating at Happy Wheels. “I started skating at 14 or 15. It was a safe place to go to make friendships. There was no alcohol involved so people there were sober, so that was a plus. I met my first wife there and my wife I am presently married to there.”

Skaters dance in Happy Wheels, Portland. The location closed in December 2019 and was the last of seven total that spanned Maine and into New Hampshire. Courtesy / Derek Fitzgerald

Along the way, contractors have been willing to help because of their memories at the rink and, in general, support has been “heartwarming.”

During the Planning Board approval process, city staff and board members recalled birthdays and fun times or how excited their kids are for this.

“Holding on to that legacy is important for me,” Fitzgerald said. “There are so many memories for people meeting their husband or wife, getting their first kiss, holding on to the other person’s hand during couples skate. A lot of adults say in honesty they wouldn’t know where they’d be if they didn’t have the rink.”

The legacy of Happy Wheels rolls deep in the area, Fitzgerald said, because since the 70s they have had locations all over Maine and in New Hampshire.

In total, they had seven rinks. Happy Wheels sites in South Portland and Scarborough closed in the 1980s and 2000s, respectively.

Sometimes I get choked up about it, it makes it hard to talk about. We are so anxious for it to come back,” Wier said. “I’ve already painted a shovel gold for when he breaks ground.”

Comments are not available on this story.