For more than 90 years, an aging McHenry building set along Route 31 operated not only as a roller rink, but also as a fun, healthy refuge for lonely children, a meeting place for young couples, a safe place to escape the encroachment of street drugs, a music venue and more.
And having overcome the threat of shutting down permanently in past years, Lisa Duncan, owner of Just For Fun Roller Rink, said this time with the added financial hit of COVID-19, she just can’t make it work.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Duncan said Thursday morning as she read through countless numbers of texts and Facebook messages from people who had just learned of the closing.
The building, built in the 1920s as a dance hall and later renovated into a roller rink, is set to close its doors for good. The rink will welcome its final group of skaters Sept. 19, Duncan said.
Duncan bought the roller rink business in 2001, vowing to the property owner that 100% of its earnings would go back into the aging building’s upkeep.
Duncan said she has poured her heart into the rink and even when it was clear years ago the rink was depleting her mentally and financially, she still held on.
“It probably would have been the right decision to [let it go],” she said of 2015. “I think my heart overruled my mind when it came to letting it go.
“Because so many people stepped up to help, I could not let them down,” she said. “I don’t want to feel like a failure. These people put their money and their time or [shared] their advice with me. This is pretty much the reason why I stuck it out.”
Stories abound of couples meeting at the rink decades ago and their children and grandchildren skating there today.
Duncan, 53, and her fiancé, Toby Tagliapietra, 50, like those many couples over the decades, first met at the McHenry rink.
In 2005, Tagliapietra, an international roller rink hockey player, first met Duncan when he was looking for a new facility for his hockey program. Although she turned him down at first, he returned a year later and she changed her mind.
With the rink and roller skating bringing them together, the two soon became a couple. They were planning to have their wedding in the rink on Feb. 20; however, because of the pandemic, those plans were canceled.
“It’s hard,” Tagliapietra said. “It’s just hard to know that it’s gonna be gone. It’s just a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into keeping that place open.”
Those efforts included the GoFundMe in 2015, the last time the rink nearly shut down for good. The online fundraiser, started by a young employee at the rink without Duncan’s knowledge, raised about $600. Local businesses donated gift cards, supplies and hours of labor to help repair several areas of the property.
But at a monthly cost of about $6,000 and improvements still needed, this time Duncan has to go with the building owner’s decision to sell.
The building is owned by a private family trust. Wade Cepulis of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, who is named as the owner of the building on county records, offered to sell Duncan the building, but she declined, she said.
Cepulis could not be reached for comment.
According to a McHenry County tax inquiry, the building’s owners are about $100,000 in arrears on property taxes.
They have not paid taxes since 2016, according to the county. The owners must pay the taxes on or before Oct. 23, according to the county clerk’s office which stated the property had been sold “for delinquent taxes.”
The status of the building is in question. While Duncan was told by the owner that the building is sold and it is listed on a Zillow site as “off market,” Mayor Wayne Jett said it is not yet sold.
Jett, who said the building is listed for about $250,000, said Friday that he had hoped to get investors together to buy the property years ago and now it would be too late to do so.
Jett, who grew up in McHenry, recalled skating there as a kid and said today he brings his four children – ages 3, 8, 12 and 13 – there to skate.
He said the city will work with whomever buys the property, which is zoned commercial.
“To see it go is unfortunate,” Jett said. “Hopefully what ever goes in there is something that benefits the city in some way, whether for the kids or the entire community.”
Tagliapietra is a self-described “rink rat” since he was a child, spending much time at the Mundelein rink (which the couple also owns) with the same name, Just For Fun.
He has made many of his best, longtime friends through time spent at a roller rink. He has enjoyed coaching, mentoring and teaching new generations of children and families to enjoy the activity in McHenry, he said.
Duncan said over the years she has acted as a mom and counselor to many of the young kids who came to skate.
Often called “Mama Lisa” by many, she would pick up kids at their homes and bring them to the rink to skate if they couldn’t get a ride. She let kids and families skate for free when times were tough and they didn’t have any money. She talked to kids about their family lives, personal struggles and encouraged them not to smoke and to stay away from drugs.
She knew many local teens and young adults who were using drugs – many who have died of drug overdoses. She tried to help them and kept the roller rink a safe, drug-free zone, she said.
She said many have her cellphone number and come to her with problems when they could not go to anyone else.
“I’m that other person,” she said. “I’m not gonna ask questions. I’m gonna do the best I can to help you.”
And, she said, the kids helped her too. Not only as volunteers at the rink, but when she was working toward her own GED, the kids at the rink helped her study math.
Duncan also made sure their grades were up and their homework was done before letting them skate, including kids like Robert Bell.
“She would always ask, when any of the kids came in to the rink, the ‘rink rats,’ she would always say ‘Your homework done? How’s your grades?’ And if you said no … she would say ‘Go sit down and do your homework,’” Bell recalled.
Bell, now 33 and living in Fox Lake, said he moved to McHenry with his family in sixth grade and the rink helped him adjust and make friends.
He said a friend took him to the rink, where he became a “rink rat” and “ended up wanting to spend my life there and raise my kids there and that unfortunately is not gonna happen.”
Bell worked for the rink and eventually became an unpaid volunteer just to help the struggling rink stay afloat.
“Times were tough,” he said. “It was slow and I had been in the skating world since I was 3 years old. [Duncan’s] back was against the wall. I wanted to be there for her just like she’s been there for me.”
Bell learned some skills and made lifelong friends at the rink and he wishes it could remain open so others could have same positive experiences.
“It’s gonna be sad,” Bell said. “It’s my home away from home, I’m gonna be sad to see it go.”
Jake Mitchell, 40, of McHenry, whose family owns Ridgefield Flooring in Crystal Lake, one of many companies who donated services in 2015 to spruce up the rink, has skated at Just For Fun since he was about 10 years old.
Today, Mitchell brings his own children there to skate and has held their birthday parties there. The rink has been the site of Cub Scout meetings, and his company has even held its Christmas parties there. He said his children’s first response to hearing of the closing was “where would they have their birthday parties now?”
“It’s gonna be sad,” Mitchell said. “It’s a loss to the community as a whole. It’s a healthy, fun [activity]. It’s something to do and they are not gonna be able to do it anymore. Multiple facets of the community are gonna be affected.”
He also said he appreciates the level of trust he has with Duncan, which is hard to find these days.
“I trust her as much as my wife with my kids,” Mitchell said. “I’ve left my kids there. I think she is a great person.”
Gino Scarim, 39, of West Dundee, is co-founder of Decal Productions, a booking company. Scarim also works as a freelance sound engineer for national touring artists.
In the early 2000s, Scarim said he began working sound for bands who performed at the rink. He later began booking bands there as well, a unique use of the rink that provided entertainment to local, young adults for a minimal cost.
“It was unbelievable,” Scarim said. “Shows started after 9 p.m. and a lot of weekends there were 200 to 300 people. There was great energy, bands loved it, a big space, it was really special.”
He said the loss of the rink is “heartbreaking.”
“I really feel that this was like a cool environment that got kids away from screen time and actually got them out and doing something, interacting, skating, concerts, hockey … they were just so good to the community. … a very cool vibe,” Scarim said. “Something that won’t be replaced.”
Duncan said that while her Mundelein rink will remain open, she knows what the McHenry roller rink offered to local families cannot be replaced.
Special skate events will continue until the doors close for good. Visit the rink’s Facebook page “Just For Fun Roller Rink – McHenry” for updates.