DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — More than four decades have passed since Jim LaPage first glided through Skate Country.
The Dubuque skating rink served as the backdrop for countless childhood memories. It was the venue where LaPage met his wife. And, it was the perfect place to bring his two kids for an afternoon of entertainment.
On Jan. 7, the Sherrill resident laces up his skates on a regular basis.
“They’ve always run a first-class, family-oriented business,” LaPage said. “When I started taking my kids there, it kind of felt like history repeating itself.”
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LaPage attributes Skate Country’s staying power to the continued presence of Steve and Kerry Koopmann.
For more than 40 years, the Dubuque couple has been at the helm of the rink, the Telegraph Herald reported .
The owners relish the connections they have made with customers like LaPage and take immense pride whenever a family brings a new generation out to skate.
“A business has to make money, but what really makes me feel good is that we’ve done something right,” Steve Koopmann said. “The fact that they enjoyed themselves and they come back, the fact that people would want to bring their kids here, that is really rewarding.”
Skate Country opened its local doors in late 1972. At the time, the rink was one of multiple facilities opened as part of the Skate Country chain, which had rinks across the U.S.
Steve Koopmann was hired as the assistant manager in 1974 and Kerry, his wife, began working at Skate Country later that year. After a couple of years, Steve ascended to the role of manager.
LaPage recalls making his first visit to Skate Country in 1977, when he was in elementary school. It was during middle school, however, that he became a regular at the rink.
“It was very, very popular,” he recalled. “It seemed like everyone was going there. You were kind of an outcast if you didn’t skate.”
His continued interested in skating paid major dividends: LaPage met his wife, Stacey, at Skate Country when the two were in high school.
In the mid-1980s, the Koopmanns made the transition from managers to owners. They became the first managers in the U.S. to buy out their Skate Country facility and were allowed to keep the name in the process.
Skate Country moved to its current location, 5630 Saratoga Road, in 1996. The business has remained there ever since.
Throughout the years, the skating experience has evolved.
Steve Koopmann notes that the popularity of in-line skates, which became popular in the 1990s, had a notable impact on the industry. Skate Country also has tried to keep up with cultural trends, making sure they have popular and modern music on hand.
But the Koopmanns also have made a concerted effort to keep some things the same.
The facility has a decidedly throwback feel. The owners are proud that skaters aren’t bombarded by a mass of flat-screen televisions or other visuals.
“I think we are a lot more safety conscious than a lot of other rinks,” said Kerry. “If you are watching a big screen, you might not see the child in front of you who fell.”
Steve Koopmann believes Skate Country does just fine without the bells and whistles that other rinks might offer.
“I like to think people are pretty well entertained with what we do,” he said.
LaPage, meanwhile, contends that the prices also have stayed consistent at Skate Country, another quality that has kept people coming back.
“I remember back in 2008 and 2009, when the recession hit, there were a lot of businesses that really suffered,” he said. “But Skate Country was packed. They thrived because it was an affordable way for people to get some entertainment.”
The Koopmanns will be the first to tell you that the skating business, on a national level, is no longer what it used to be.
“There are fewer rinks in the country than when we started,” Kerry said. “And, there aren’t a lot of new ones opening up.”
Steve Koopmann has a number of theories for the industry’s decline. He believes kids aren’t as active as they used to be, and those who are have busier schedules and more options for entertainment. He also noted that opening new rinks requires a sizable foot print. Skate Country’s rink spans more than 11,000 square feet and is a big investment.
The establishment, however, has remained profitable at a time when others in the industry have struggled. He said the rink continues to attract around 250 people on a good winter afternoon, which tends to be Skate Country’s busiest time of the year.
Steve and Kerry Koopmann estimate that kids aged 15 and younger account for at least 80 percent of their business, and they strive to make Skate Country a welcoming venue for children.
They host birthday parties and provide “class passes” that allow students to bring classmates to the rink.
Watching new generations take up skating is one of the many things the Koopmanns have enjoyed in their time at Skate Country.
“We’ve had a lot of good times and met a lot of great people,” Steve said. “We’ve been doing this for 43 years now, and it has been a great experience.”
Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com