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Saints or Sinners?

Olivette officials put the squeeze on a popular roller rink


Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Sundays can be busy days for the Reverend Renita Lamkin, who lives in Olivette and preaches at the Mt. Woodland African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hillsdale near Columbia.

Besides donning her vestments and driving nearly halfway across the state, Lamkin once a month picks up her two teens, and often their friends, from Saints Olivette Roller Skating Center after all-night skating sessions that end at 7 a.m on Sunday mornings. "I'm there to get mine and a whole bunch of others -- two or three carloads, sometimes, when I have to be at church," she says.

But Sundays will be less hectic for Lamkin since the city of Olivette earlier this month ordered an end to the all-night teen parties. The city, which owns the land and building at 1168 North Warson Road, says the parties aren't safe. Rink operators, who are black, say it's a case of racism in a municipality where blacks represent slightly more than 20 percent of the population and the mayor and four-member council are white.

"I will tell you straight up: They are afraid of African Americans," says Andre Stith, rink manager.

For more than twenty years, Saints has been a destination for African-American youth throughout the St. Louis region. Besides a skating rink, Saints includes a recording studio where Nelly and the St. Lunatics laid down some of their earliest tracks, including some from Country Grammar. The studio opened in the early 1990s, but Stith says the city ordered him to shut it down last year after the Riverfront Times published a story about the recording business [René Spencer Saller, "The Producers," April 10, 2002]. Stith admits the studio wasn't licensed by the city, nor did the lease allow for a recording studio.

Partygoers at the all-night sessions, which are also known as 'lock-ins,' are not supposed to be admitted after midnight and aren't supposed to leave until 7 a.m. Stith doesn't deny that some of his guests have caused problems. There have been fights, litter and complaints from nearby business owners, including some who say rowdy patrons force them to close down when the parties end. But Stith says that's no reason to stop the all-nighters that draw as many as 600 teens to the rink he's run since 1991. Without the parties, Stith says his business can't survive.

Saints began hosting lock-ins in 1999 after Olivette city officials agreed to ten all-night sessions per year on a probationary basis. There were no significant problems until a December party, when police answered nine calls at the rink, including five that involved assaults, says Major Rick Knox of the Olivette Police Department. During a city council meeting last week, Knox said his officers have investigated fourteen assaults at the rink during the last seven lock-ins at Saints. Knox also said police have handled at least one tampering complaint and six miscellaneous calls for service.

According to police reports, one assault victim required stitches and another had some teeth knocked out. Knox says some security guards have been wearing shirts with "Police" on the backs. "It's just gotten a little bit out of hand," Knox says.

Stith insists any problems are exaggerated.

"'Bobby pushed Johnny' and that's an assault third or fourth degree," Stith says. "They don't even take the kids away half the time. They will magnify and amplify and blow up maybe ten kids a month that go up there and act bad. We've had some issues. You don't go through 75,000 to 100,000 people a year and not have difficulties."

One of the most serious difficulties was a 2002 shooting that left two people wounded in a Creve Coeur parking lot near the rink shortly after closing time. There wasn't a lock-in that night, but the shooting forced an end to a series of parties for college-age skaters that drew near-capacity crowds, Stith says, and police clamped down by not allowing parking on streets near the rink. "One kid shot at the other kid," he says. "He shot him in the leg, grazed him, didn't even penetrate. It grazed him. It was over in Creve Coeur, which is the worst thing in the world -- they think we're nothing but bad. That was the most tragic thing. That wiped out 1,000 kids being in our facility because two of them acted bad that night."

While police say problems with lock-ins started in December, the city and operators of the rink have been at odds since the 1980s. In 1989, rink management withdrew a request to extend operating hours to 3:30 a.m. after residents objected. Two years later, the rink again aborted a move to extend operating hours in the face of protests by surrounding property owners who objected to noise at closing time and patrons who parked off-site. In 1994, Stith agreed to close at 11:40 p.m. on Saturday nights instead of midnight after residents again complained.

The rink wouldn't exist if the city in 1973 hadn't agreed to lease the land for $1 a year to a private non-profit group that built an ice-skating rink with $850,000 in borrowed money. The ice rink soon failed, and the city and Boatmen's Bank, which issued revenue bonds for construction costs, leased the building in 1980 to a Minneapolis corporation that converted it into a roller-skating rink. Stith is leasing the property from the Minneapolis company.

The lease expires in 2005, but the city is in no mood to let the lock-ins continue that long.

City attorney Tom Cunningham says the city revoked permission for the lock-ins because Stith and his employees had not notified city police of incidents of disorderly conduct, regardless of magnitude, as required by the 1999 agreement with the city that allowed the lock-ins. Stith insists that the rink has notified police of problems.

In any case, Lee Clayton Goodman, Stith's lawyer, says the 1999 agreement is vague and unconscionable. "You have allowed these folks to enter into an agreement they can't live up to," Goodman told council members. "You are participating in the constructive closure of the skating rink."

Fine, the council decided. If Stith believes the agreement isn't legally enforceable, he can sue, city officials said. "Right now, it's a matter for the courts, if you have an interest in doing so," Councilman Scott Smith told Stith.

Olivette isn't the only entity worried about Saints. Two St. Louis County police officers attended last week's council session, and department spokesman Mason Keller says Saints is on the county's radar screen. "We've been out there in the past for various assaults and other things," Keller says. "I think it would be a concern of ours to have those all-night skates restricted. We've had our fair share of problems with the crowd. Generally, the problems we have is the sheer number of people who pack into that place and traffic getting in and out."

Overland Mayor Robert Dody told Olivette council members that several businesses on Page Avenue in his city close down when the all-night parties end. "They [rink patrons] break windows," Dody said. "They bang on doors. Restaurant patrons are intimidated and harassed. Why don't they have lock-ins during the day?" Stith told Dody that his staff urges customers not to pass through Overland after parties, but some of his customers live in Overland, within walking distance of the rink.

Besides providing recreation and a safe place for youth to hang out, Stith says his rink generates about $70,000 per year for the city. Councilwoman Missy Waldman says that isn't the point.

"It's not money for us," she said. "It's the safety of human life. People. It's a very difficult issue to balance."

Stith interrupted.

"Ms. Waldman, you don't care about our people more than me," he said. "I resent that. I resent that implication." And if Stith had his way, he'd find a new place to do business.

"You have no idea how much we want to pack up our roller skates and roll out of your city," he told the council.

Renita Lamkin, the minister, contends the city is making a big mistake.

"I don't believe it's unsafe -- no more unsafe than 800 children in school or at a football game," Lamkin says. "Things happen. If the city council can't propose a constructive alternative, leave them alone."

Correction published 8/6/03:
In the original version of this story, Major Rick Knox of the Olivette Police Department was incorrectly identified on first reference as Major Rick Fox. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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