When Funky’s Skate Center owner Joanne Wills was 17, a fortune teller imagined “many wheels” in her future.
Now, “every time I clean wheels I think of that woman,” Wills said with a laugh.
What the Seer didn’t predict was the Miller Circle explosion that rocked Harrisonburg in the fall of 2020. Beyond the complete devastation of a strip mall – which was home to many popular community hubs – it left Funky’s partially in shambles and Wills heavily in debt.
“I didn’t really believe Funky had been damaged until I saw the pictures – it really hurts,” said Maryssa Mottesheard, a manager who was due to arrive that morning. “We had no idea what the future was going to be.”
Before the explosion, COVID-19 was devastating the rink in a different sense.
As with most other businesses, Funky’s was forced to close at the start of the pandemic, only reopening for booked parties in September 2020 – such as the one that was scheduled for October 17, the day of the explosion. This strategy seemed sufficient to “keep the wolf out of the door,” Wills said in a interview 2020.
But beyond the financial problems, the pandemic has also caused an existential crisis for the family business. Wills wondered if anyone would even want to come to an ice rink, given the future uncertainties behind COVID-19. Moreover, seeing loved ones personally affected by the disease, she saw a danger in it: “You don’t want to do this to your family just to earn money.”
Instead, hemorrhaging money, Wills dropped insurance on the Funky’s building for this year, despite a history of always having it.
“I never used insurance, if something happens I’ll just pay for it,” Wills recalled thinking, “I didn’t expect it to blow up.”
Nobody did. The explosion, which occurred on a Saturday morning and would be determined by the city to be caused by a natural gas leakknocked down Funky’s ceiling, shattered windows, cracked its walls, and produced a myriad of costly electrical problems.
It also left no one to blame and therefore no one to help pay for the damage. Especially with the statute of limitations for compensation claims coming in October, any hope for reparations could quickly fade.
Without insurance, Wills considered leaving Funky’s, leaving it as a relic of the town’s past. However, community awareness – like that of the local Roller Derby team – and family encouragement created some motivation to move forward.
“It wasn’t really my choice, but I really tried to push them to reopen,” said Callum Wills, Joanne’s son and manager at Funky’s.
The team helped create a GoFundMe page, which Mottesheard says provided Funky’s between $2,000 and $3,000. Although useful, it was not enough to cover repairs, costing around $220,000.
A stroke of luck brought a slight profit during the revamp. While everything else was damaged, the solar panels on Funky’s roof remained intact. The electricity produced, not used by the ice rink, was sold to the grid.
Still, to save on expense, Joanne – with the help of family members, Mottesheard, skating enthusiasts and other volunteers – tried to do much of the cleaning and repairs independently, in addition to hiring an electrician. According to WHSV, it could be found almost daily, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., working to repair the property. The work included moving debris, cutting out old ceiling fixtures and installing new flooring, Callum said.
“Everything, pretty much, here is updated,” Mottesheard said, recalling having to replace everything from the walls to the doors. She views the change optimistically: “This place needed an update and I think it’s much better now that it’s had it.”
Redone and reopened
Prior to its renovation, Joanne described Funky’s – founded in 1974 – as reminiscent of its original decade. When she took over in 2008, she was thrilled to improve the facility.
“I was full of energy and enthusiasm,” Joanne said, “but then your business kicks off and to do things like that, you obviously have to shut down.”
In a way, the forced closure enabled much-needed upgrades. If anyone enters now, they’ll be greeted by multicolored LED lights, artistic patterns on the walls – some of which are the work of JMU students – and hundreds of feet gliding over modernized woodwork. Customers don’t see the building’s electrical updates, which Joanne says is an important improvement to prevent potential fires.
The Harrisonburg community seems to have greeted the November opening with enthusiasm, with business keeping the family on their toes.
“It’s been really busy this year,” Wills said. “Too busy, actually. It was a little too crazy at first.
At first, Funky’s saw a surge in younger patrons, around the age of 12, many of whom had other motivations than just skating. Joanne recalls a fight that broke out, as well as public scenes. This prompted her to raise the age to 16 for night skating, unless one comes with a parent. Initially, we were worried about the financial consequences.
“It hurt, and it might hurt a little this summer,” Joanne said. Still, “somehow it ended up [being] a much nicer place, [with] a much more pleasant atmosphere.
Full of families, college students, and couples, many guests are repeat members of a familiar community. Cherrie Davis, a customer who comes every two weeks with her husband to catch up with friends, appreciates the new design, which she says reminds her of a skating rink from her childhood.
The skaters were not the only ones to change their age, the staff too. Given the ongoing labor shortage in the aftermath of the pandemic, Joanne began hiring younger workers and had to get rid of the snack bar, which typically required two to three employees.
Compared to the state average, Harrisonburg’s unemployment rates have performed better. But that doesn’t mean things were easy.
Another change came in the form of a slight price hike of around a dollar on everything, especially to help cover rebuilding costs. Nonetheless, Mottesheard notes that “we’re still one of the cheapest things to do here.”
While Funky’s recent popularity has given Joanne hope they’ll be able to manage the debt caused by the explosion, the summer months tend to be more idle for the rink, which Callum is already seeing. occur. But no one seems worried this time.
“Any time you think the world is ending,” Wills said, “these are just little hiccups in the road of life.”
Contact Filip at [email protected] Filip holds degrees in media arts, design and international business.