PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Now a member of a champion roller derby team, Claire Chin never saw herself as a competitive person — until she put on skates and a helmet, and went about speeding past other competitors and bumping into them.
Oh, what fun it was, and very empowering.
“We definitely draw people in who don’t have other sports experiences,” said Chin, aka “Brute,” a skater for the Wheels of Justice team, and president of the board of directors of the Rose City Rollers league. “It’s very unique and distinctively Portland.
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“The work we do is really important, that women and girls have a good community. It’s a physical activity, and healthy competition is really important. … It was exciting to learn how competitive and ambitious I was, and that’s undervalued in society right now. I hope folks can see the work we do is really important, especially for young girls. And someone will hear our mission, how important it is, and make space for us.”
The Rose City Rollers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with 17 teams and 500-plus strong with girls, women and transitioning folks, needs to find a new building for competitions by July 1. The organization, one of the biggest in the country, has called The Hangar at Oaks Amusement Park in Southeast Portland its home since the start of the club in 2004.
The club can still practice in the space, but it can’t stage competitions there. A new Portland Fire & Rescue fire marshal rule doesn’t allow crowds of more than 300 people in a building without sprinklers and not zoned for assembly, even with a fire permit.
Kim Stegeman, founder and executive director of Rose City Rollers, said she has been looking for buildings for several years that would serve as the club’s headquarters and practice/competition facility, but an adequate place hasn’t been found yet.
“We’ve pulled single-use permits each time we’re going to have an event” at The Hangar, Stegeman said. “We’ve always operated by using fire permits, but we’ve always lumped together events, and it’s exhausting.”
Stegeman is searching for a 20,000-square-foot building in Portland or Multnomah County, one that doesn’t have pillars — a safety hazard for skaters — and that can be rezoned for assembly and that has sprinklers and other requirements.
And it has to be a building that hasn’t been scooped up by the marijuana industry. Stegeman said the nonprofit has identified buildings in the past, but they’ve been purchased by out-of-state marijuana companies that can offer cash.
“We’re looking for all options,” said Stegeman, who estimates that she has looked at 20 to 30 buildings throughout the years. “What I’d like to see happen is we’d find 20,000 square feet, so that we can have two practice tracks; additional hours of practice (availability) means that we can have more youth skaters. We’re running about 48 hours of practice a week, from 4 o’clock to 10 o’clock every night.”
The Rose City Rollers would be able to put a substantial six-figure down payment on the building. “I’ve been saving money for a long time; I’m thrifty,” Stegeman said. And she hopes a capital campaign can raise up to $400,000 to help provide for a reasonable mortgage payment. Stegeman estimates that it would cost at least $1.5 million for an adequate building.
Stegeman met with staff from the offices of city Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Dan Saltzman to discuss options.
What comes immediately to mind as a possible space is a vacated grocery store, such as an old Safeway or Albertsons building. But Stegeman said those buildings have too many pillars; worst-case scenario, the club might be able to make an old grocery store work. The club also could look into using the Expo Center, where it has held competitions in the past.
“There’s got to be properties that people are sitting on, not looking to sell, but if they hear we need a building …,” Stegeman said. “If somebody wants to develop something and wants an anchor, plunk us down, and then if you want a burger joint and bar that wants to be there, massage parlor and gym next to us … you could name it after yourself, if you want a sweet deal on it.”
The Rose City Rollers league has quite a tradition. The Wheels of Justice team broke through in 2015 with their first Women’s Flat Track Derby Association championship, then repeated the title on its home turf last year at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Now they go for their third consecutive win in Philadelphia, Nov. 3-5. The league’s players extend down to 7-year-olds.
“There are 7- to 12-year-olds kids who say, ‘Yes, I found something I want to do.’ And, they embrace wearing the wacky socks,” said Stegeman, a former roller derby competitor who went by the name “Rocket Mean.”
And, befitting a progressive city such as Portland, the Rose City Rollers league is unabashedly inclusive with gender policies, allowing transitioning and nonbinary individuals.
“We do try to create an environment where we’re welcoming,” Chin said. “A core value is being inclusive, embracing differences. Across the board, we try to welcome all different types of women, and having that kind of diversity is what makes it exciting. It helps you learn from each other.”
But, will the Rose City Rollers find a new home? We’ll see.
“It’s crazy; most people plan a big move like this for five years,” Stegeman said. “I have 500 anxious fears of going homeless in July in the peak of our season.”