Economics defeats bowling alleys

 

To the Editor:

I have followed from a distance the debate over the proposed bowling center/bar in Oak Bluffs, and I am a potential next door neighbor. But this isn’t about me; this is about what’s good for Oak Bluffs and the Vineyard.

When I bought my condo on Hiawatha Avenue 10 years ago, the realtor told me the story of the vacant laundromat: the vision the developer had for a green facility, the investment in technology, and the abandoned building when reality didn’t live up to the promise. He also told me of the vision the then new owner had: in addition to the condos, he was going to build a number of single-family homes where the laundromat stood. But along came the 2005 financial crisis that culminated with the 2008 Wall Street collapse. The vision went down with the stock and the real estate markets.

Now, all hope is being pinned on a bowling alley and the promise of good, clean family-centric entertainment. My concerns aside, I wanted to know the experience other resort communities had with bowling centers. Nantucket opened one in 1918 to help turn around a struggling casino. It failed. Two years ago, someone proposed another one. This is how it was reported out in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror: “(Jan. 26, 2012 ) What was the first question posed to a panel of town officials, business owners and civic leaders assembled Monday to discuss issues facing downtown Nantucket? ‘One man wanted to know if there was any interest in putting in a bowling alley.’

“After the laughter subsided, Nantucket Bookworks owner Wendy Hudson offered a healthy dose of reality about the cost of doing business downtown.

“‘It’s the rent,’ she said. ‘The cost of square-footage downtown that is practically insurmountable. The only reason the bookstores work is because ReMain and my family are helping that happen. You can’t make the math work. You wouldn’t believe how tight it is… A bowling alley would be great here. To see it downtown would shock me.’”

We can’t ignore the reality of how difficult it is to operate a profitable business in a high-rent area. We also can’t ignore that bowling’s peak season is the fall and winter — the off-season for tourists on whom the proposed bowling center’s success will likely depend. A strategy given on one web site for bowling alley operators for making bowling alleys profitable in the summer is to open lanes late and offer discounts. Late hours don’t mix with a residential community, and prices are understandably higher on-Island in the summer to make up for the slow off-season. Frankly, I don’t know too many families who come to M.V. in the summer to spend time bowling. If it’s not a beach day, it’s porch day, or a day to explore the Island’s small businesses.

I also wanted to know how bowling alleys are doing in the current economy. Buzzfeed (http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/40-abandoned-bowling-alleys-from-across-the-usa) had on its site a list of 40 abandoned bowling alleys. Bowling centers are growing in urban areas, but smaller centers are on the decline. The culprit, according to one bowling web site, is the loss of discretionary income. There’s not a whole lot of discretionary income to spend by many of the Island’s year-round residents. Affordable housing would likely be their preference. I have not come across anything that convinces me a bowling alley is good for Martha’s Vineyard, let alone Oak Bluffs.

I understand hope and vision. I had both a decade ago when I purchased my condo in anticipation of spending a quiet retirement on-Island beginning in 2014.

Peggy Barmore

Oak Bluffs