New ministry aims to bring back roller rink this spring

After five years, a once-popular community gathering place may finally make a comeback.

Georgianna and Richard Buhler, founders of the nondenominational TouchPoint Alaska Ministries, recently purchased the old Church of God property, which has been shuttered for the past five years. Although one of their long-term goals is to eventually have a day care center at the Bennett Street property, their first priority is to bring back the adjoining roller rink.

"There's a lot of memories in this community with this place," Richard said of the rink, remembering how their grandson fondly reminisced about the rink and how he loved having his birthday parties there.

At one point, the rink also doubled as a gymnasium for the church's Christian academy that taught kindergarten through eighth grade from the mid-1990s to early 2000s. The large rink was also once the home of a local roller derby team called the Garnet Grit Betties. "They disbanded a while back," Georgianna said. "But this is where they started."

During the almost two years the Buhlers have been working on this project, she's seen the drive to bring back the rink shared by many residents, generations that want to see their children create their own memories of the place. "That's kind of what we're excited about, to be able to return a part of Wrangell's memories and to be able to make new ones for the next generation."

The first phase for the Buhlers will be restoring the rink's flooring, walkways and stairwells to make sure that they're safe, with a completion deadline tentatively set for the end of March. They hope to open it to the public by mid-April.

"We'll have regularly scheduled skate nights on Fridays and Saturdays," she said. "It will be open for rentals just like it used to be for birthday parties and stuff. ... We want to run some special events ... and make it available for some free skate nights."

Georgianna said the second phase of the renovation will be the heating systems. The skating rink is noticeably colder than the church. The rink relies on propane heat while the rest of the church uses electric baseboard heaters that are about 50 years old. They want to replace both with sustainable, economically viable heating, and make sure it's fully insulated.

"If we get that all done by Christmas 2024, I will be very, very happy."

Their ministry started in 2020, shortly after the COVID shutdown began, when the Buhlers started using Zoom to organize small groups for Bible study.

Then in March 2022, one of the pastors of their church, Kem Haggard with Harbor Light, put them in touch with businessman Jim Freeman, who had been looking to start a new Christian day care center but all the churches in town were at capacity. That led them all to the Church of God site and its adjoining roller rink, which they realized could provide a unique form of outreach for TouchPoint, combining their ministry with the rink and, hopefully sometime later, a day care center.

"TouchPoint is about points of contact," Georgianna said. "For us, every person who comes in here, it's a point of contact. ... There's a lot of new people in town, and it's an opportunity to get to know them better."

The Buhlers and Freeman had worked with others to try reopening the rink in September of 2022; volunteers cleaned the facilities, the spaces underneath the church and rink, and the outside storage area. "We thought we had a pathway clear," Georgianna said. "And then some other things came along, and it didn't happen."

Things stalled for a while as they looked at different approaches and worked to establish who owned the property, which turned out to be the Alaska General Assembly of the Church of God as well as the local assembly.

By August of last year, the Buhlers and fellow board members of TouchPoint were able to move forward with buying the property. Georgianna posted on her Facebook page on Jan. 21 that they needed assistance with the monthly costs during start-up and the initial costs to get the rink up and running.

She added in her post, "Currently, only one-third of the $3,500 monthly expenses are covered by monthly partners. An additional $5,000 is needed to open the roller rink this spring." She has not provided an update on project finances.

Freeman, one of the cleanup coordinators in 2022, had said at the time that the place had been a mainstay of Wrangell social life in the 1980s and that it was "one of the most popular things in town." He hoped that skaters would feel a sense of nostalgia once the facilities are up and running again.

Members in good standing with the Harbor Light Church, the Buhlers have no plans to leave it. "That's our home," Georgianna said. "We didn't start a new church. We're not in competition or anything. The way that the ministry works is that we hold our Bible studies here or our small groups ... here on Wednesdays."

The third phase for the Buhlers will be establishing their day care center at the old Church of God property by early 2025.

 

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