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Wisconsin’s bowling industry suffers amid floods, closures

Workers clean up flood damage at the Schwoegler's Park Towne Lanes bowling alley in Madison on Aug. 23. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Workers clean up flood damage at the Schwoegler’s Park Towne Lanes bowling alley in Madison on Aug. 23. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Bowling pins topple, teeter, spin and fly.

But this summer they’ve also been charred by flames and soaked with floodwaters.

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, and The Lanes in Cascade will shut down its six-lane alley.

Floodwaters dealt another blow last month to two bowling alleys in Dane County, but the owners are vowing to reopen their businesses.

The cost of the damage to Schwoegler’s Park Towne Lanes in Madison could hit $1 million after the alley’s 36 lanes were submerged in runoff from an overwhelmed detention pond. Crews have begun ripping out the lanes, and bowling won’t resume there until mid-November, according to a recent post on Schwoegler’s Facebook page. However, the bar and restaurant is scheduled to reopen this week, and the banquet room will be ready by Sept. 10.

To the west, Black Earth Lanes was temporarily shut down after floodwaters filled its basement. The alley’s eight lanes, ball returns and pin-setting machines are in good condition, but compressors for refrigeration, its beer cooler and thousands of dollars in liquor and food stored below are all ruined.

Neither Schwoegler’s nor Black Earth Lanes was covered by flood insurance.

Remarkably, the four lanes, bar and restaurant at Main Street Lanes, lying less than two blocks from Black Earth Creek in Cross Plains, had just a few inches of water in their basement.

“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, who’s originally from Arizona and 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 favorite pastimes. Fifty bowling alleys 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.

There are now about 300 bowling alleys throughout the state, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. They range from historic operations with manual pinsetters to giant alleys like the 72-lane AMF Bowlero in Wauwatosa, the largest in the state. Nearly a third of the bowling alleys in Wisconsin have six or fewer lanes.

And although the number of people bowling in leagues continues to drop, operators of bowling alleys are trying to do more with food, party rooms, birthday parties and volleyball leagues. The Wisconsin Dells is home to various bowling alleys meant for tourists Kalahria Resort offers 24 lanes at Kalahari Resort and the restaurant Knucklehead’s offers 10.

In Columbus, the former Cardinal Ale House, which closed in early 2015, was recently reopened as Fast Lanes. The alley has 12 lanes of bowling, beer from Sprecher’s, a restaurant and arcade games. Leagues are planned to begin this fall. And in the Milwaukee area, bowling alleys 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.”

Schwoegler’s, a bowling institution that also houses the Madison USBC Bowling Association Hall of Fame, will celebrate its first 100 years in 2019. The roots of the family business can be traced to Capital Alleys in Downtown Madison, a bowling that was on a site that is now home to the Bartell Theatre. Schwoegler’s opened at its current address, 444 Grand Canyon Drive, in 1972.

Carter Smith, owner of Schwoegler's Park Towne Lanes, surveys flood damage in his bowling alley on Aug. 23. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Carter Smith, owner of Schwoegler’s Park Towne Lanes, surveys flood damage in his bowling alley on Aug. 23. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The business underwent $850,000 worth of work in 1999. Among other things, the change had new synthetic lanes placed over the alley’s 36 wooden lanes. Carter Smith, who owns bowling alleys in Stoughton, McFarland, Beaver Dam, West Bend and Eau Claire, bought Schwoegler’s in 2006 and has had extensive work done to it in the past three years.

When floodwaters came pouring in on Aug. 27, the water level inside the building rose to about 4 feet. Fortunately, though, it never reached the pinsetters. Several vehicles in the parking lot were also damaged.

“You’re numb,” said Smith, as he surveyed the damage. “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 floodwaters in the building’s basement.

Although the bar, restaurant and banquet room are expected to re-open in early September, replacing the lanes will be a lot more difficult, 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 workers. 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 vacuum last month to get rid of water in his business’ basement. He and his wife, Lori, bought the bowling alley in August 2014, spruced it up and gave it a new, $13,000 exterior facade. Its menu can include a breakfast buffet and tacos. Meat raffles and deejays are regular features. But it’s all on hold now after the business sustained more than $100,000 worth of damage.

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.”

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