Skills Ville, Black-owned gymnastics center in Det...

Skills Ville, Black-owned gymnastics center in Detroit, shuts down for good

Families have been bringing kids to Skills Ville for a quarter century -- but the gym couldn't make it through the pandemic.

Skills Ville, Detroit gymnastics and sports center for kids, announced their closure last month. Credit: Stock photo by Ivan Samkov/Pexels

Detroit — For Patrice Lopez-Stringer and her two sons, Skills Ville was a family affair.

Her boys, Elijah and Isaiah Stringer, essentially grew up at the youth athletic center, which first opened on the city’s northwest side in 1995. Elijah, now 19, started taking gymnastics classes when he was 4, while Isaiah, 17, started at age 2. After competing in state and national championships, both stayed on as junior coaches, while mom ran the concessions at exhibitions. 

That was, until the facility shut down in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, owner Rohn Baker announced that Skills Ville would close permanently, leaving Lopez-Stringer’s family and other Detroiters with little other than fond memories. 

“I was sad because I was with them the whole journey,” Lopez-Stringer told Detour. “I kinda had a feeling this was gonna happen because you’re so close and basically hands-on [with the kids]. But for the most part, they gave us 25 awesome, amazing years. They turned out some awesome children.”

Isaiah Stringer competed in gymnastics with Skills Ville, then helped coach at the Detroit youth gym.
Isaiah Stringer, 2017. Family photo.

With its closure, the city will lose a rare Black-owned youth gymnastics center and neighborhood hub, underscoring the uncertain future for Detroit’s small businesses that are still reeling from COVID-19’s challenges. 

A longtime staple for families near the stately University District and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods, the facility sits along Livernois Avenue, about a mile away from the historic Avenue of Fashion corridor. Last year, a $17 million construction project tore up the strip between Seven and Eight Mile Roads, financially crippling retailers. The area, with more than 100 businesses, has one of the largest concentrations of Black-owned stores in Detroit. 

“We are truly saddened to go through this process of closing and exiting our business,” a May 15 letter to Skills Ville clients said. “We have enjoyed being a part of your families and we will miss all of the greetings, well-wishes and hugs.”

Baker’s idea for a youth athletic facility was sparked when Baker was coaching high school football in the ’90s, watching neighborhood children flipping and doing somersaults off the bleachers during games.

In 1995, Baker and his wife, Yvonne, left their jobs at Ameritech to open Skills Ville, offering gymnastics and martial arts to start. Over the years, they added a “Busy Bunny” gymnastics program for toddlers ages 2-4, recreational gymnastics for children 5 and over, a travel team that competes nationally, cheerleading camps, indoor baseball training and adult kickboxing.

Skills Ville held its last session March 14, shortly before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered non-essential businesses to close and residents to stay at home. Baker knew they were going to take a financial hit. But the loss of income, while their utility and insurance bills kept coming, became more costly than they anticipated. 

The toughest blow was not being able to get any stimulus money from the federal Small Business Administration. Under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, small businesses can get financial assistance that covers eight weeks of payroll and other expenses. Skills Ville’s PPP application was rejected, according to Baker. 

Click here for a curated list of 40+ Black-owned businesses in Detroit that you can support right now.

As bills mounted, he couldn’t see a path forward to reopen and hold classes responsibly, with the future of safe gyms still a total question mark in early May. Whitmer has relaxed social-distancing restrictions in recent weeks, but gyms, youth camps and pools only opened for outdoor programs and classes this week, and it’s not clear when gyms in southeast Michigan will be able to open their indoor spaces.

“We had so many concerns… without a clear plan of how to deal with so much uncertainty and so much misinformation we couldn’t see how we could continue,” Baker said. “We stand proud that we have served the Detroit community uninterrupted for 25 years. We have collected a treasure trove of memories.”

The Williams family has their own collection of Skills Ville memories.

Allen Williams, 10, went to Skills Ville from 2012 to 2016, first starting with the “Busy Bunny” gymnastics program and progressing to martial arts. 

Allen Williams, now a swimmer, took classes at Skills Ville in his early years. Family photo.

Now a swimmer, Williams’ athletic ability was first nurtured at Skills Ville. By starting early, he learned skills and conditioning that were helpful when he moved into other sports such as flag football and soccer, his mother Nakai Williams said. The flexibility he learned helps him in the water.

“I’m really going to miss the place,” Nakai Williams said. “As far as what it meant to Detroit, it was run by a family that invested themselves and their money. Skills Ville was a place where their children can be cared for. It was more than sports.”

Nationally, a recent survey of 500 Black and Hispanic small business owners conducted by Global Strategy Group for Color Of Change and UnidosUS in April and May, found that nearly half believe they will need to close for good in the next six months. Just 12% of businesses that applied for federal aid in that time period received the amount they requested. Three-quarters received zero funding.

Despite two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program support, 45 percent of Black and Latinx small-business owners reported they will be shuttered by the end of the year, if not sooner. 

“This poll shows that African American and Latino small businesses — the economic engines of many cities, small towns and communities across America — are suffering greatly but are being left out of relief efforts,” Janet Murguía, CEO and President of UnidosUS said in a statement. “This is simply unacceptable.”

Skills Ville, along with other businesses that weathered years of population loss and city disinvestment to serve Detroiters, was a community institution as much as a small business. 

“They were more than coaches. The wonderful thing is we have memories… and lifelong skills,” Lopez-Stringer said. “It was a gym where you not only got gymnastics and karate, but you got a family.”

Darren A. Nichols is a Detroit-based freelance journalist and was an award-winning City Hall reporter at The Detroit News. His Twitter handle is @dnick12 or he can be reached at darren@dnick-media.com.