The Rose City Rollers roller derby league faces an existential threat: Its Southeast Portland skating rink has been deemed unsafe by the fire marshal, but the league has nowhere else to play.
Portland Fire Marshal Nate Takara declared this summer that the Hangar, a rink in Oaks Park where the league has held most of its practices and games since 2009, is too dangerous for crowds because it doesn't have sprinklers. Takara says the league needs to install a costly sprinkler system by next July, limit its attendance or find another venue.
In July, the fire bureau tightened its sprinkler requirements for buildings that occasionally host large crowds. Portland city officials made the changes in response to the December 2016 warehouse fire in Oakland's "Ghost Ship" art colony, which killed 36 people.
The Rose City Rollers have 17 teams. Twenty-eight skaters at a time compete in front of crowds of up to 500 people. Under the new rules, the Rollers would have to limit attendance to 200 people. (The rules' effect on the Rollers was first reported by the Portland Tribune.)
Rose City Rollers executive director Kim Stegeman is lobbying city commissioners to either be lenient or help the league find a new home. Last month, Stegeman sent an email to City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, begging for assistance.
"We desperately need to get the word out to the city of Portland, people who have properties, people who may want us to be a part of a development, and people who want to support the league," she wrote. "To save RCR and the multitude of good things that roller derby provides for women, girls, and Portland overall—we need help!"
The fire marshal's decision places Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees Portland Fire & Rescue, in a political bind. The Rose City Rollers are a beloved Portland institution, the largest roller derby league in the world and a feminist pillar. Yet bending the rules could expose Saltzman to criticism of playing favorites at the expense of public safety.
The city already faces litigation over a related rule. In September, landlords of several downtown nightclubs sued the city over a 2013 ordinance that required clubs to be retrofitted with sprinklers. Club owners and the state Building Codes Division say the fire marshal's office exceeded its authority in that instance.
Saltzman's office says City Hall is willing to negotiate deadlines—but the Rollers have got to move.
"I did make it clear that we have to see some action and potential options, but if June 30, 2018, comes down and we're just waiting a couple months, we're not going to make them homeless on that date," says Matt Grumm, a senior policy director for Saltzman. "It's a special case because they do such great stuff in the community."
But the Rose City Rollers remain frustrated the rule was applied at Oaks Park.
Because the Hangar uses only temporary permits for derby games, it doesn't have to meet the same safety standards as buildings with permanent permits. The updated rule closes this gap.
"I understand they wrote the rule and so they don't want to be the ones going, 'Oh well, here's this exception,' but our building is a lot different than buildings this is meant to apply to," Stegeman says.
Fire officials concede Stegeman has a point.
"The doors are wide enough. The exiting is not an issue," says Portland Fire & Rescue spokeswoman Capt. Louisa Jones. "The problem is, we can't exempt one facility and hold everyone [else] to that standard."
Staying in the building as is would force the Rose City Rollers to cut the Hangar's occupancy from 625 to 300, crippling the league financially. About 100 people help run the event, from skaters to ticket collectors, meaning the league would be allowed to sell only about 200 tickets.
Because the building doesn't have a water main, installing sprinklers would cost the Rose City Rollers $250,000, which the organization cannot afford.
A new home for the Rollers would require 25,000 square feet with 20-foot ceilings and the capacity to hold 750 fans.
"It's unfortunate that something that has never been a problem is making us change the whole way we do Rose City Rollers," Stegeman says. "I'm trying to be optimistic and say maybe it's the time and catalyst we needed for this to happen."