By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
AUSTINTOWN -- Skate Zone Fun Center was a roller-skating rink, plain and simple, when Larry and Cindy Maynard bought it eight years ago.
Now, more than a half-million dollars' worth of renovations later, it's an elaborate, indoor-outdoor recreation center and a can't-miss-it landmark on Mahoning Avenue in Austintown.
The newest addition is an 18-hole miniature golf course outside, complete with water falls, bridges and landscaping.
The old-time skating rink is still there, complete with light balls and multicolored spotlights.
But for nonskaters there's a laser tag facility, rows of nonviolent video games, and a new snack bar-pizza parlor.
Also new, winding overhead in the lobby, is the 10,000-square-foot Web City, an enclosed adventure maze and playground for children ages 3 to 12.
It's all about building business by meeting the broader, more sophisticated tastes of today's youth, the Maynards said. And it's working.
The owners wouldn't divulge profit figures, but they said their sales have increased steadily every year and the Skate Zone ranks fifth among skating centers in Ohio for gross sales.
"You might drive by on a Friday night, see six cars in the parking lot and think it's dead in here," Larry Maynard said. "But inside, we've got 300 kids. People drop their kids off, and they trust us to watch out for them and make sure they have a good time."
Skate Center was built in the 1970s, but despite its strong network of enthusiastic skating customers the Maynards said they were the only interested buyers when the former owner put it up for sale in 1994.
They hammered out a land contract deal to buy the business, partnering with Cindy's brother Randy Shaffer and his wife, Laura, at first. They bought the couple out a year later.
From the start, Larry Maynard said, the couple believed the business had to be more than just a skating rink. "People ask me when I thought of adding miniature golf," he said. "I was thinking of it before I ever bought the place."
Fulfilling a dream
A native of Marion, Ohio, Maynard said he'd always dreamed of owning his own "fun" business -- something like a pizza parlor or an ice cream stand. He met his wife when they were both students at Ohio State University. She pursued a career in education and he got into the banking business.
After they married, Maynard spent some time working at the Skate Connection, a roller-skating rink in Boardman owned by his wife's family, and that spurred his interest in the industry. He learned that Skate Zone was up for sale in 1994 through his contacts as a loan officer at the former First Federal of Youngstown.
He quit his bank job about a year after the couple bought the business; Cindy Maynard kept her job as a guidance counselor for South Range Local Schools.
Soon after they bought the place, the couple took a cross-country trip to see other skating rinks, and they noticed a trend toward combining entertainment options into "fun centers."
Their first major addition was Laser Storm, the 2,400-square-foot laser tag arena, which they constructed behind the skating area in 1997 at a cost of about $150,000.
Players use "zappers" in a game reminiscent of flashlight tag. Maynard stressed that players zap a colored light beam at the opposing team's target pod, not at other players.
"It's a great team builder," he said, explaining that the arena is often used by businesses and church groups for team building exercises.
The couple added a fresh-baked pizza shop by bringing in Perky's Pizza, a pizza chain that locates mostly in theaters, bowling alleys and skate centers. The chain paid to renovate the center's snack bar.
Video games had been a part of the center when the couple bought it, but they added more. Then, when school shootings were tied to violent video games several years ago, Maynard decided to get rid of any game with a violent theme.
"I destroyed them. It cost me $18,000, and that hurt," he said. "But I feel good about it because it's part of making this a safe, fun place for families. We have only nonviolent games."
The couple's daughter, Hayley, 8, helped with the design of the 10,000-square-foot overhead playground. "She wanted us to name it Hayley's World," he said.
Renovations are continuing, as the owners complete work on some private meeting rooms to build their party business. The center already schedules about 1,000 private parties a year, but they believe there's still room for growth.
They're also adding a private playroom for Hayley and their other two daughters, both preschoolers, because the girls have to spend a lot of time at the center with their parents.
It took several years to work out the details for their outdoor golf course because they wanted to build it on the front parking lot, and that made it necessary to find alternative parking. Finally they negotiated a deal to buy property for parking behind the Auto Zone next door.
They designed the miniature golf course with the help of Adventure Golf, a Traverse City, Mich., company, and opened it this spring.
Traverse City officials were so impressed with the expanding fun center that they offered to help the Maynards model a national franchise business after the Austintown location.
"I told them to get back to me in a few years," Maynard said, grinning. "We're not ready for anything like that yet."