The Fountain Valley Skating Center near the 405 Freeway. (Photo courtesy Chris Epting)

The Fountain Valley Skating Center near the 405 Freeway. (Photo courtesy Chris Epting) (September 3, 2012)

Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever wrote a strong editorial in the Daily Pilot last week calling out the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) for its "audacious scheme" that would "use billions of Measure M2 freeway congestion-improvement tax dollars to construct toll lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa."

Bever concluded with, "OCTA's 405 Alternative 3 and 3-A toll road schemes are highway robbery with the taxpayers as victims, and it's time to put the notion of charging tolls on our FREEways to rest. Speak up now for Alternative 2, or forever pay the price."

(Alternative 2 is an expansion plan with no extra tolls.)

I'd like to add another comment not covered in the editorial. All of OCTA's original proposals for the expansion called for them to employ their powers of "eminent domain," that eerily benign-sounding phrase with the harsh definition "government seizure of property without the owner's consent — but with monetary compensation."

To make room for the expansion, OCTA would have had to seize and decimate four businesses near Magnolia Street and the 405; a miniature golf center, a hotel, a sporting goods store and the place that has triggered a heartfelt avalanche of local support: the Fountain Valley Skating Center.


FOR THE RECORD:
A previous version of this column claimed that the Orange County Transportation Authority is considering a plan that would potentially cause the decimation of the Fountain Valley Skating Center. OCTA amended that proposal in August.

I heard from both friends and strangers this week, all intensely riled at the prospect of the roller-skating facility being destroyed by the OCTA toll lane scheme. A grass-roots effort sprung up on Facebook, where locals began posting not just their frustrations, but their memories, too, bundles of memories that are still being made every day. I was aware of the rink. But not as aware of the role it plays here.

Birthday parties, first dates, class trips, reunions, nights out with friends — this center is an emotional touchstone. And more.

Through the roller disco era of the late 1970s to the present, the rink has also been an invaluable place for fundraising, generating tens of thousands of dollars each year for many local schools.

Bob La Briola has owned and operated the Fountain Valley Skating Center for all but a few months of the 35 years it has existed. At 81, the four-time national roller-skating champion (with an iron handshake) would have made the late Jack LaLanne proud. Youthful, athletic and spry, he still teaches skating five days a week.

In his cramped office, with a large portrait of he and his wife Irene's five grown (and athletic) children looming on the wall, the Brooklyn-ite (still proud of his streetwise accent even after living out here more than 50 years) said, "I learned a long time ago not to get stressed or upset about something you can't control. This situation with OCTA taking the property? I'll do the best I can to combat it, but if they decide to take it, regardless of what the citizenry thinks, it will happen.

"They'll pay me to go away into the sunset. I don't want that. I love this business. And this community."

He started skating back in 1942 after his former-boxer father lost a team roller-skating competition. So incensed was the competitive elder that he put skates on Bob and his sister and ordered the two to exact family revenge in the rink. The pair became champions. Since then, La Briola has coached dozens of champs at this rink (after running rinks in Santa Ana and Long Beach) along with thousands of other students. But he also built a community business he is fiercely proud of, in large part, because of how it helps the schools.

On the wall, a large calendar is fully blocked out the rest of the year with schools. Business has never been better, and business has always been good.

A binder already an inch thick with printed emails from all over the country is on his desk. The emotions expressed are supportive, personal and poignant. A fast-filling petition is now at the front desk. This day, the rink is packed with kids in matching blue t-shirts: Boys & Girls Club members

After meeting with La Briola, I was telling Vivian Fung, the woman who cuts my hair, this story. Overhearing me, another stylist, Monica Scott, said she skates there with her daughter. And she was outraged that it was being threatened. Another stylist, Shelley Smith, also overheard me. "Look at my arm," she said. She had goose bumps. "That's what the center does to me when I think about it. I spent my life there. And my daughter Laynee, too. They just can't take that place away."

I started to truly grasp the meaning and gravity of the center.

It is not merely a business. Nor just a nostalgic hall of memories where cherished youth and innocence hang thick in the air above the oval. Oh, it is those things. However, it is also a vital, invaluable part of people's lives. It is lifeblood for dozens of schools. And it provides a beautiful, generational continuum for all who bring their kids (and grandkids) here today.

Now in fairness to OCTA, since the original plans were presented, in reaction to both the public and the politicians, they've proposed several alternatives that would not require that the four businesses be absorbed by eminent domain. OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik explained to me that the company does its best to spare both homes and businesses the eminent domain process — and that it tries to take its cue from the community.

"Because we've gotten such strong response from the community, we've gone into a deeper level of design during the environmental phase so that we can eliminate having to impact these businesses," he said. "That's never what we want to do. This is the time to address these concerns, and it is how we operate during every project."

To that end, one of three new designs will be recommended by OCTA's regional planning and highways committee on Sept. 17. Next spring, the final environmental impact report is due, and then it will be up to Caltrans to accept the recommendation or not. So while the skating center and other businesses are not yet in the clear, the signs are at least hopeful that they will survive.

So keep your fingers crossed and your skates on for now.

Incidentally, Bob would love if all those that can please attend a meeting at OCTA headquarters (600 S. Main St. in Orange, room 154). They take place at 9 a.m. Sept. 10, 10:30 a.m. Sept. 17 and 9 a.m. Sept. 24.

If you can't attend and you'd like your message to be delivered during the meetings, send it to savetherink@fvsc.com.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County" from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.