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

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 neighborhood 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.

From behind the manager's desk, Pratt, one of the four owners, said most of the kids were normally picked up in front of the rink. But about a month ago, she said, the police officers who oversee the exodus from the building began preventing cars from waiting on the street outside, forcing kids down the hill to Security Boulevard to be picked up.

For those who need public transportation, Pratt said she normally texts the Maryland Transit Administration and asks for extra buses. She said most of the teens who frequent Skateworks are from Baltimore County, with about 20 percent from Baltimore.

By 11:30 p.m., the security guards began shouting for the kids to start making their way to the door. Outside, about 100 kids were waiting on the sidewalk across from the rink's entrance to be picked up. Three security guards stopped traffic and ushered teens across the street in a path marked by orange cones. The kids remained in clumps, shouting goodbyes and laughing.

Despite orders from the guards — "Yo, get out of the street!" — several youths ducked into the slow-moving traffic on Whitehead Road on their own to cross the street and make their way down the hill to Security Boulevard to catch the bus.

Jene McLecurin and Ashante Bennett, both 14, were among the smaller groups to break off and head down the hill. McLecurin, a Friendship Academy student in a "Twilight" T-shirt, said she hadn't come to skate, but rather to dance and because "there are boys here." She and Bennett, who attends Baltimore Freedom Academy, said they would be "mad" if the rink were shut down.

At a BP gas station at Security Boulevard and Whitehead Road, a dozen teenagers waited in line to buy chips and sodas. The crosswalk signal at the intersection didn't work, and many kids darted across Security Boulevard from the gas station's parking lot to reach the crowd at the bus stop.

By 12:30 a.m., four MTA buses had carried off the crowd on the north side of Security Boulevard, but some kids remained in the parking lot of a strip mall. A few stragglers headed off in different directions.

Inside the rink, the cleanup had begun.

Chanel Holmes, a 16-year-old Polytechnic Institute student who socializes and volunteers at the rink, said it would be important for the rink to stay open because many teens need a place to unwind after a week at school.

"You feel safe here," she said, adding that most of the "chaos" people hear about in relation to Skateworks happens "around the corner" and not inside the building. Nor, she suggested, is the trouble necessarily caused by people who go to the rink.

"They assume it's us causing the problems," she said, because Skateworks "has the most teenagers."

Wilson, the rink's co-owner, said that "predetermined attitudes" might be partly responsible for Skateworks' troubled reputation.

"There are not too many situations in Baltimore County where large groups of African-Americans congregate and then let out all at the same time," he said. "I don't think the county has another black-owned business of this size."

He compared the situation to a town suddenly getting a baseball team that lets out spectators all at the same time.

"We have to put in systems that will work," he said. "That requires cooperation from everybody, including our patrons. If we can't do this, then we should have a serious discussion about what community means and whether police understand these children. In some cases, I think they have predetermined that these kids are about bad things."

Wilson said he was somewhat encouraged that "the police and the county are offering us middle ground." He and his partners expect to hire four off-duty police officers to provide more security, and they will use the proposed 90-day probationary period to alleviate closing-time problems.

He will also ask the police to consider opening a Police Athletic League center at Skateworks.

"We want to establish a great working relationship with the police," Wilson said. "This should not be antagonistic. There are ways to have a large crowd without having problems."

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