State’s bowling culture suffers blows from floods, fire and closings but hints of resurgence
Bowling pins topple, teeter, spin and fly.
But this summer they’ve also been charred by flames and soaked with floodwater, while others are headed into retirement.
In July, fire destroyed the Friendship Bar & Bowl in Adams County. Meanwhile, in Sheboygan County, JB’s Entertainment Center in Howards Grove has announced it will close its 12 lanes, while The Lanes in Cascade will shutter its six-lane facility.
Floodwaters dealt another blow last week to two bowling facilities in Dane County, but the owners are vowing to reopen.
The damage at Schwoegler’s Park Towne Lanes in Madison could hit $1 million after the facility’s 36 lanes were submerged in runoff from an overwhelmed detention pond. Crews began ripping out the lanes last week, and bowling won’t return until mid-November, according to a post Friday on Schwoegler’s Facebook page. However, the bar and restaurant is scheduled to reopen Sept. 4, and the banquet room will be ready by Sept. 10.
To the west, Black Earth Lanes is temporarily shuttered after floodwaters filled the basement of the business in the village’s downtown. The eight bowling lanes, ball returns and pin-setting machines are fine, but compressors for refrigeration, the beer cooler and thousands of dollars in liquor and food stored below are all trashed.
Neither Schwoegler’s nor Black Earth Lanes was covered by flood insurance.
Remarkably, the four lanes, bar and restaurant at Main Street Lanes, located less than two blocks from Black Earth Creek in Cross Plains, had just a few inches of water in its basement and escaped relatively unscathed.
“I had one small drip over a return machine here that they caught early enough that didn’t even fill a 2-gallon pail,” said Eric Eberle, an Arizona transplant who purchased the business in April and lives in an apartment above. “I was very, very fortunate. And I know that.”
Disasters and economics are continuing to whittle away at one of the state’s cultural staples — 50 bowling facilities have been lost since 2014, according to industry data. The losses include Badger Bowl, a hub for bowling and music since 1977 at Rimrock Road and the Beltline in Madison. It was bulldozed in 2017 and replaced with a $6.5 million car dealership for Fields Jaguar Land Rover Volvo of Madison that opened this month.
There are now about 300 bowling facilities around the state. They range from historic operations with manual pinsetters to mega facilities like the 72-lane AMF Bowlero in Wauwatosa, the largest in the state. Nearly a third of the bowling facilities in Wisconsin are six or fewer lanes.
And while the number of people bowling in leagues continues to drop, bowling center operators are getting creative with food, party rooms, birthday parties, volleyball leagues and pushing more social bowling opportunities, charging by the hour instead of the game. Wisconsin Dells is home to bowling centers aimed at tourists with 24 lanes at Kalahari Resort and 10 lanes at Knucklehead’s, a restaurant and family gaming facility.
In Columbus, Cardinal Ale House had been closed since early 2015 but reopened last week as Fast Lanes. The facility includes 12 lanes of bowling, beer from Sprecher’s, a restaurant and retro arcade games. Leagues are planned to begin this fall. And in the Milwaukee area, non-traditional bowling centers focused on social bowling, not leagues, are planned for Southridge Mall, Brookfield Square and near Fiserv Forum, the new home of the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I think the future of bowling in Wisconsin is still very strong,” said Yvonne Tison Bennett, executive director of the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin. “But as we see real estate market values increasing, people are going to find it an easy way to liquidate and monetize their business. We’ve always been concerned about the longevity and future of bowling, but we’re seeing a lot of new people and new money and new blood and energy coming into the sport.”
Taking it ‘day-by-day’
Schwoegler’s will celebrate 100 years in 2019 and is a bowling institution that also houses the Madison USBC Bowling Association Hall of Fame, which escaped damage from last week’s floods. The roots of the family business can be traced to Capital Alleys in Downtown Madison on a site that is now home to the Bartell Theatre. Its current location, 444 Grand Canyon Drive, opened in 1972.
The business underwent an $850,000 upgrade in 1999 that included new synthetic lanes overlaid on its 36 wood lanes. Carter Smith, who owns bowling centers in Stoughton, McFarland, Beaver Dam, West Bend and Eau Claire, purchased Schwoegler’s in 2006 and over the last three years, the facility has been extensively upgraded, with the exception of the lanes. But new synthetic lanes are on the way because of floodwaters that began to creep into the business from the back and through the front doors on Monday evening.
At its peak, water measured about 4 feet inside the building but didn’t reach the pinsetters. Several vehicles in the parking lot were also damaged.
“You’re numb,” said Smith, as he surveyed the damage last week. “I learned a long time ago that if there’s a problem in front of you and you can’t do anything about it to change it, don’t get upset.”
The flood dislodged bowling pins, which came to rest in gutters and on the lanes. The ball returns are likely ruined, and between $15,000 and $20,000 worth of food and liquor had to be thrown away after being exposed to floodwater in the basement.
While the bar, restaurant and banquet room are expected to re-open in early September, replacing the lanes is more of a challenge, said Rob Bloxham, a field supervisor for Schwoegler’s. The materials can be delivered in about three weeks, but only two companies, Brunswick and QubicaAMF, do installations, and they are short on staff. That means a delay for the start of the bowling center’s league play for 1,100 bowlers.
“They’ve got the product, we’re ready for it, but they don’t have the installers to do it,” Bloxham said.
At Black Earth Lanes, founded in 1946, Jonathan Abing was in rubber boots and using a wet vac to get rid of the water in the basement of his business Thursday. He and his wife, Lori, bought the bowling alley in August 2014, spruced it up and and gave it a new, $13,000 exterior facade. The menu can include a breakfast buffet and tacos on Tuesday. Meat raffles and deejays are regular features. But it’s all on hold as damages could surpass $100,000.
Jonathan Abing, 40, is not sure yet how he’ll finance the repairs or when the doors will reopen.
“As far as keeping the business running, everything we need is down here,” Abing said. “It’s going to have to be day-by-day right now. Money is definitely a factor.”