Skaters circle the floor at Happy Wheels’ grand reopening in Westbrook on Saturday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

A long line of happy roller skaters eagerly waited for the grand reopening of Happy Wheels at its new Westbrook rink Saturday.

“We are so excited,” said Kathy Barnhart, 55, of Gray, with a new pair of skates in hand. “I was messaging (the owner) back in May: ‘When are you going to open?!'”

Stephen Bennett, 59, of Windham, who met his wife years ago while roller skating, said he’s ecstatic for Happy Wheels’ return.

“She’s my couples skater,” he said.

Taylor Hart, right, owner/operator of Happy Wheels Skate Center, hugs longtime skater Tim Gaston of Gorham during the center’s grand reopening at their new center in Westbrook. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

The old Happy Wheels on Portland’s Warren Avenue closed in 2019, leaving the skating community without a home.

“I missed it so much over the pandemic,” said Sam Ellis, 32, of Gray. A roller derby skater, she used to skate five days a week before the rink closed.

New co-owner Derek Fitzgerald was a manager of the Warren Avenue rink when it closed.

He and his partner, Taylor Hart, built a new, $3 million rink with help from friends and businesses. Volunteers painted and installed skate shelves, and businesspeople like Arthur Girard and daughter Andrea Girard of Delta Realty, helped them find a location and build the rink.

But building from the ground up was an emotional roller coaster, said Fitzgerald, 41.

During the ribbon cutting ceremony, Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley credited Fitzgerald and Hart for working hard to bring roller skating back. At one point the Westbrook couple hugged each other, their eyes filled with tears.

“It’s been a long, hard road to get here,” said Fitzgerald, who also works at Idexx. “We’ve gone through a lot of construction delays, a lot of small bumps in the road,” he said.

A skater with light up wheels skates during Happy Wheels Skate Center’s grand reopening at their new Westbrook facility on Chabot Street. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer)

He’s excited to put Happy Wheels “back into history,” welcoming grandparents, parents and their children. Since the rink closed, “skaters had to go to Auburn or Massachusetts,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s nothing else. We have families drive from Vermont weekly.”

Noting all the excitement from skaters, “it brings it home,” Fitzgerald said. “It solidifies all the right reasons why we did this.”

A self-described rink rat, he started roller skating when he was 3 years old, pretty much growing up in the Warren Avenue rink. In the ’70s and ’80s, roller skating was what everyone did, he said. He spent years working there.

In 2019, when Fitzgerald was told the rink was going to close and that the property would be sold, it was a hard blow, he said.

Within an hour of learning the news, he started planning for a new Happy Wheels.

“We decided to buy the assets and reopen” and Fitzgerald and Hart began contacting real estate agents to find a new home.

Timothy Kerr of Portland skates during the grand reopening of Happy Wheels Skate Center in Westbrook. Kerr said he has been skating at Happy Wheels since he was 14 or 15. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

They wanted to offer skating for “the community,” said Hart, 29. “It’s important to have a safe place outside of your home where you can go and feel comfortable coming in,” she said.

As the crowd was about to enter the rink Saturday, the mayor said Fitzgerald “has an amazing space in there that he’s put together” using materials from the old rink. When skaters go inside, “you’re going to be excited.”

They weren’t disappointed.

As Mason Stoddard walked in, his face lit up.

“I’m flabbergasted. It’s absolutely amazing,” he said, noting a nostalgic atmosphere in a building that’s shiny and new. “It’s way better.”

Happy Wheels patrons wait to get skates Saturday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

When the Warren Avenue rink closed, Stoddard, 21, of Windham, began going to Rollodrome in Auburn to skate.

“Now that my home is back, I’ll be here,” he said.

All around him people put on their skates and waited for the opening.

A skate guard, dressed in the black and white referee uniform, was ready to do his job.

Alyssa Spry Bergeron of Auburn, left, and Melissa Prescott of Norway dance during Happy Wheels Skate Center’s grand reopening at their new Westbrook location on Chabot Street. Happy Wheels closed their last location on Warren Avenue in Portland in December of 2019. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Finally, the light system started strobing and the sound system filled the air with music.

“Everybody skate!” Fitzgerald said as skaters rolled onto the floor.

The first song that played was “Don’t Stop Believin'” – the same song played at the last skate on Warren Avenue three years ago.

Happy Wheels is on Chabot Street near Goodwill. It offers public skating five times a week, including open skate for all ages on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and adult skates Tuesday nights for ages 18 and over. Admission is $10, skate rentals are $4.

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