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Skating Away in Natural Bridge

Been roller skating lately?WMRA's Jessie Knadler has, and she's got the story of the resurgence in the number of first-time rink owners and new rink openings, including Stonebridge Skate Center in Natural Bridge Station.

[Sound of roller skating]

This is Jessie Knadler reporting for WMRA and I’m in Natural Bridge Station doing something I haven’t done for a long time. I’m roller skating. Yes, roller skating.

[Sound of rink fades]

Whew. I can hear myself think again. 

Stonebridge Skate Center opened two months ago and is introducing otherwise gadget hungry Rockbridge County Millennials to old school skating maneuvers like Shoot the Duck, the Limbo and Crazy Legs. (Don’t know what those are? You Tube it.)

A new rink opening in a suburb of Richmond or even Roanoke might not seem like a big deal, but around Natural Bridge Station, population 1,400, where you have to drive past barbed wire fences and deer hunting decoys to get to? It’s a big deal.

The rink is owned by local entrepreneur Scott Sayre of Sayre Enterprises, based out of nearby Buena Vista. If you’ve ever seen a military person wearing a reflective strip or vest, chances are his company made it. They also do all the embroidery for J.Crew.

The company had outgrown its manufacturing facilities in Buena Vista and was looking for new corporate headquarters. The old Natural Bridge High School, which stopped operating as a school in 1992, had been vacant since 2008 when a heating and air conditioner manufacturer moved out. This left the town with a gaping hole in badly needed tax revenue for the real estate.

County officials eventually worked out a deal with Sayre. They would essentially give him the 17 acre site in exchange for providing a minimum of 22 jobs and restoring the property to the local tax rolls. He agreed, and Sayre Enterprises has been headquartered there since 2012.

But what to do with that 20,000 square foot gymnasium featuring smooth rubberized floors?

SCOTT SAYRE: We had to think out of the box. What would bring revenues here but be an affordable activity? Roller skating was making a rebound.

In fact, a “considerable uptick” in the number of first-time rink owners and new rink openings has been reported by the Roller Skating Association, the voice of the rolling skating industry.

While the Association doesn’t have hard data on the number of rinks opening in rural areas, spokesperson Jim McMahon says he’s not that surprised given that a big reason rinks go under is because of the hefty property taxes owners have to pay for all that square footage, plus parking, in more densely populated urban areas where land is expensive. The key to success for a rural rink, he said, is that it has to draw skaters from a wide area.

So far, according to Scott Sayre, that seems to be the case. Stonebridge draws some 400-500 skaters from Roanoke to Lexington to Charlottesville every weekend. 

Sayre does admit that learning the rink business has been a bit of a comical trial and error.

SAYRE: The first time we skated, we invited some Cub Scouts from across the street to come over here. I didn’t know you had to go in a circle. They were going back and forth, running into each other, hitting the poles.

IRMA BAILEY: I refused the last time to get in skates but my son talked me into getting on today. I’m doing better than I thought I would.

Irma Bailey of Natural Bridge was at the rink with her six year old son and his friend.

BAILEY: They were here for a birthday party about a month and half ago and just loved it. He couldn’t wait come back.

News of the rink has spread word-of-mouth and through social media, luring millennials who might otherwise be at home staring into the vortex of a computer screen.

MARY JENSON: If it wasn’t for this roller skating rink I might be playing Mind Craft [laughs].

That’s 11-year-old Mary Jenson. She lives in Lexington and has been to the rink twice so far.

JENSON: I love the music! When I came here, I was like, YES!  THIS is my jam.

Skating’s resurgence – if you can call it that – goes hand-in-hand with today’s music. Today’s funk, disco and 80s infused beats, from the likes of Pharrell and Katy Perry, lends itself to a skating vibe. Stonebridge’s resident DJ, AJ Biggs, sits perched on an elevated platform and keeps the party rocking.

What’s interesting about Stonebridge is that it’s one of the few recreational activities where the older folks – people like myself who grew up skating  – can out boogie the kids. I can backward skate. A lot of the kids I saw can’t. But that edge won’t last long.

SAYRE: If you were here two months ago, the kids you saw today could not skate. They’re picking up the skating.

That’s Sayre again.

SAYRE: They’re taking the old disco moves and they’re adapting it to their music now. So jam skating, toe dancing, spot dancing—what is it? Crazy legs, boogie dancing, hexing, rexing, trucking, they’ve got their own terms and they’re bringing it back and they are doing it.

Yes, but can they Shoot the Duck? Can Scott Sayre?

SAYRE: Do I know how to Shoot the Duck? The first time you asked me that question, I was like, Well, actually, I’m a turkey hunter so I prefer shooting the turkeys.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag