Uncertainty surrounding Cincinnati Gardens rattles Rollergirls, other teams

The women who suit up for the Cincinnati Rollergirls aren't in it for the fame or the fortune, because you won't find either on the tracks where they bump, skate, whip and rumble.

But for a decade, there was some glory to be found when they slipped on their skates, pads and helmets and took to the concrete floors of the Cincinnati Gardens to grind another one out in front of their beloved hometown crowd.

"I'm not from here and the first time I walked in my jaw dropped and I was like, 'We're going to be playing here?'" said Lauren Bishop, a retired player (Miss Print) and principal owner of the team, about her reaction to seeing the arena for the first time in 2006.

"It was an incredible experience to skate in front of a crowd there, and you feel like a rock star skating in that place. Visiting teams told us that all the time."

In light of the Gardens' recent sale to the Port of Cincinnati Development Authority, the 14,000-capacity building's days seem numbered, and Bishop and the 30 players on the squad have intensified their months-long search for a new home.

Though a spokesperson for the Gardens would not speak on the record about the Port Authority's plans for the building, the sale is expected to close later this summer and the future doesn't look good for the facility, which has hosted everyone from the Beatles and Richard Nixon to Madonna, Ezzard Charles and the Shrine Circus.

Sale Rumors Fueled Start of Home Search 

The Rollergirls played their first full season at the Gardens in 2007, a "big bump up" from the local skating rinks where they spent their 2006 debut. Within a few years they pulled in their biggest crowd to date, in 2011 (4,100). It was an amazing feat in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association league, where many of the 284 ranked leagues still practice and play in small warehouses, small skating rinks and sports complexes.

Bishop said the Rollergirls began looking for new space a few years ago when rumors of a potential sale first surfaced and the squad has struggled to find one that's as accommodating, inspiring and affordable as the Gardens.

"We heard off and on about several buyers, and we knew this could happen at any time," she said.

At the team's final game on June 11, the skaters packed up not knowing if they would ever skate at the Gardens again.

But with a likely ranking high enough to earn them a spot in this year's playoff tournament in August and the start of scheduling for the 2017 seasons looming in the fall, Bishop said the pressure is on to find a new home; so far, the pickings are slim.

"We're looking around and talking to people on or near local college campuses and some sports facilities, but we have pretty specific requirements for space and availability," she said.

Other Teams Face Upheaval 

It's not just the Rollergirls who are being affected. The men's Cincinnati Battering Rams team, a junior league team, and the new-ish roller derby rec league are also now out of a space, as are the Cincinnati Curling Club and several other local hockey teams that used the Gardens' facilities.

Former Cincinnati Mighty Ducks public relations director and announcer Don Helbig said the expected closure is also a blow to teams in the Cincinnati youth hockey program who used the Gardens' ice, as well as to men's hockey leagues and high schools like Moeller and Sycamore that might now have to scramble to find spots to practice and play. Up to 600 high school athletes could be displaced by the closure of the building's two ice pads.

"It's not just a big change, it's an upheaval," said Jonathan Penney, president of the Cincinnati Curling Club. "There's going to be the same demand but much less supply."

The 7-year-old, 90-member club, which started out practicing and playing at the Indian Hill Winter Club, moved over to the Gardens in 2014. Penney said the switch was a huge deal.

"The pricing was better, we were in a bit more control and we were able to grow in a way we couldn't before," said Penney, 43, a stay-at-home dad and native of Ontario. He comes from a family of curlers and sidelines as an icemaker-for-hire for curling clubs in Detroit and Kalamazoo. Penney and his teammates were able to get on the ice at the Gardens' annex site for almost 11 hours over three nights every week, making what he said building officials called a "significant" contribution to the Gardens' bottom line.

Though in talks with two local rinks for possible ice times, Penney said availability is slim and if a deal can't be worked out the club may fold or go dormant.

"The closest dedicated facility is in Columbus," he said, fearing the distance might make a good portion of players reluctant to keep participating. Like Bishop, Penney said the first time he walked into the Gardens his jaw "dropped to the floor," making him wonder why the end is coming so quietly.

"The history those walls could speak is just outstanding," he said. "I'm surprised nobody wanted to step up and preserve a piece of Cincinnati heritage."

A spokesperson for the Port, Gail Paul, declined to comment on any potential plans for the site, saying that the Authority "is evaluating the property and its suitability for redevelopment into a job-ready site suitable for next-generation manufacturing." At press time the Port had not closed on the purchase.

"I feel lucky that we were able to practice and play there as long as we were," said Bishop. "To say that you skated where the Beatles played … that's just cool." 

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