Financing Crumbles, Owner Starts To Dismantle West End Duckpin Bowling Alley
Hartford's Highland Bowl Closes Without Buyer, But Development Plans Wait
By BRIAN DOWLING
June 22, 2012
HARTFORD —— On Friday, a small group of friends and relatives began disassembling the lanes, gutters and pin-setting equipment at Highland Bowl, the duckpin bowling alley on Farmington Avenue in the West End.
"It doesn't take nearly as long as you think, because it's not a salvage, it's cut and go," said Todd Turcotte, the alley's owner. "Once the snips goes through the wires, it's almost impossible to rewire them. We're going in with impacts and drills, taking out the major components and getting them to people who bought them and want them."
The dismantling started after a neighborhood resident's attempts to secure financing to keep the alley operating fell though.
Michael Fryar began crafting a plan to purchase the bowling equipment and take over the space's lease last week. He needed $58,000, he said, to purchase the equipment from Turcotte, renovate the interior and assume a loan still on the place. His plan fell through when investors backed out and efforts from the Hartford Economic Development Corporation came up short.
"I don't want to see one more business shuttered in Hartford," Fryar said. "We have enough empty store windows."
Fryar is still talking with the city about financing for renovations and other redevelopment costs for the site. Although bowling will be gone, he sees potential in the site for family-oriented entertainment, and is considering ideas like video games, an inflatable obstacle course, a 40-seat movie theater, and a bar to host sporting events and open-mic nights.
Turcotte, Highland Bowl's current owner, bought the alley in 2006 from a West End neighborhood group.
"Whenever your work is at a place or you own a place for a long period of time, you kind of grow into it," he said Friday, It's like a second marriage — you spend a lot of hours, spend a lot of time, meet a lot of people, especially in the bowling business."
"We had buyers for everything piecemeal, a lot of people interested in a lot of the stuff," Turcotte said earlier in the week when a deal was being considered. He added that he would have been happier having a deal that kept the alley open.
He said that the decision to sell the bowling alley was based on personal issues and the business' increasing operating costs. He will continue to run his other Highland Bowl alley in Cheshire.
Friday afternoon, in the middle of the disassembly work, Turcotte's son, Ty, and a few friends bowled a few last games at the 12-lane alley. Pins flooded the lanes and gutters of decommissioned lanes next to power drills and the disassembled innards of the bowling alley.
This time, history didn't repeat itself. If the alley had found a buyer, it would have been the second time one emerged when the alley's closing seemed imminent.
In 2000, a group of West End residents scrambled together funds to buy the alley, which had been a centerpiece in the neighborhood for decades. But the group had trouble keeping the place going and sold to Turcotte in 2006.
David S. Barrett, president of the West End Civic Association, called the alley a important "bridge" for the neighborhood where different ethnic and economic groups could coexist amid the duckpins and the game's characteristically small bowling balls.
"Clearly, it can bring together people of different economic means from different geographic parts of the neighborhood," he said. "It is a diverse neighborhood, ethnically. It's right in the middle."
The business gave some neighborhood teens their first jobs, Barrett said, adding that because bowling is a low-cost activity that does not require a lot of equipment, they are ideal community spaces.
"The more places you have to build community and social interaction, the better. It's an important piece of the history, and it's important to continue to be a place for community interaction."
The financing deal that Fryar still hopes to complete will give him the ability to keep the location as neighborhood gathering place, one with activities for children and adults, something like a Chuck E. Cheese's mixed with a Dave & Buster's for the West End. Fryar expects to find out next week whether his plans will move forward.
Fryar said that his plans could be stalled if he needs to install an elevator to comply with building codes. He believes the basement bowling alley was given an exemption from some accessibility regulations, but doubts the leniency will continue if it's redeveloped.
"The model is out there, and it's done well," Fryar said. "The question is, can you make X amount of money on kids and kids' parties? What makes it work in our neighborhood is you can also do adults."
But by Monday, Turcotte expects he and his crew will have the duckpin equipment taken apart and out the door, leaving a momentary hole in Hartford's West End.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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