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Westgate Bowling Center in Comstock Park diversified its business model to include operating suites for beauty salons, which has helped the company to some degree as it tries to weather the pandemic-related shutdown.  Westgate Bowling Center in Comstock Park diversified its business model to include operating suites for beauty salons, which has helped the company to some degree as it tries to weather the pandemic-related shutdown. COURTESY PHOTO

Michigan bowling centers press case to be spared from ongoing closures

BY Sunday, August 02, 2020 07:15pm

Wenger’s Bowling Center, the oldest bowling facility in Grand Rapids, has hosted patrons for the last 100 years, but not so much in the last four and a half months.

The two-story center located at 629 Leonard St. NW is one of the many bowling centers around the state of Michigan that remain dark, unable to open after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut them down in late March because of concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

Bowling centers have been lumped in with the likes of gyms and indoor recreation centers, which also remain closed because of the pandemic.

“There are bowling centers all over Michigan that are closed right now and we still have to pay our money to be able to operate as a business,” said Tyler Ladwig, who is in his fifth year operating Wenger’s. “Well, if we can’t operate, that’s kind of a double-edged sword.

“We get penalized if we open our doors because the health department threatens to take our food license. The state of Michigan threatens to take our license away plus the liquor commission wants to take our liquor license away. There are so many things that they come at us for if we operate as a full-fledged bowling center.”

With bowling open for business in 45 of the country’s 50 states, proprietors of these Michigan bowling centers are beyond antsy, especially as they witness businesses with seemingly equal risks for transmitting COVID-19 open back up.

To force the issue, Michigan groups like the Independent Bowling and Entertainment Centers Association (IBECA) and the Bowling Centers Association of Michigan (BCAM) are considering legal action, similar to the steps taken by Michigan gyms.

Now, a spike in new COVID-19 cases threatens to set the state back in its progress and could potentially keep bowling centers out of action even longer.

“I know there are a couple centers in Michigan that have opened in other areas, but once the state caught wind of it, they were basically given a fine and forced to shut down as well,” Ladwig said. “It doesn’t sit very well with me. It’s kind of bullshit because we still have to pay our money. Our bills are still coming in. I don’t know how much money I’ve forked over to the state of Michigan to be closed for four months.”

Avoiding seasonal disaster

While a four- to five-month closure might seem like a death sentence for most businesses, if there was ever an ideal time for this to happen to bowling centers, that time is now.

The summer months signify a slow period of business for bowling centers, but opening up by the first of September is crucial to accommodate the start of league play.

According to Bo Goergen, executive director of BCAM, there are 80,000 sanctioned league bowlers in the state of Michigan and bowling centers also can rely on an additional 30,000 to 40,000 unsanctioned bowlers who are all planning to start play in the first week of September.

By remaining closed during this crucial time, Goergen estimated that potentially 50 percent of these businesses could be wiped out — businesses that generate $375 million in revenue each year, equating to $190 million to the Michigan economy. The closures would also put 5,000 employees out of work.

“We’re running out of resources on what we can do,” said Goergen, who is also a professional bowler and the proprietor of Northern Lanes Recreation in Sanford, located in Midland County. “We’re grown adults; we know how to operate a facility. We have all the protocols in place from masks to gloves to sanitizers to plexiglass to paper cups, sanitation for shoes and balls and decals for social distancing.”

Last week, many media outlets were reporting that BCAM had filed legal action against Gov. Whitmer, but Goergen said the lawsuit was put on hold as the group explored alternative avenues to lobby for the reopening of their businesses.

Goergen said that, based on the outcome of the case involving Michigan gyms — where industry members won the initial suit, but saw the ruling overturned in a federal court of appeals — BCAM wasn’t confident in the lawsuit’s potential for success. Instead, BCAM is striving to gain the attention of advisers close to Gov. Whitmer and members of her administration to prove that the bowling centers can reopen in a responsible fashion.

With the average size of a bowling center being 30,000 square feet, Goergen argued that bowling centers are no different in their level of risk than grocery or retail stores.

When member organizations have come to BCAM for help and insight on how to weather the pandemic, the group encourages its members to get with their banks to explore their financial options as they wait to reopen, Goergen said.

“Nothing is more frustrating when you look, and at the end of the day, I can go get a haircut,” Goergen said. “I can go get my nails done. I can get a full body massage. I can go to the dentist and have someone with their hands in my mouth. I can even go to a freakin’ strip club and put nasty dollar bills in G-strings, but I can’t open up a bowling center. Seriously.”

Benefit in diversifying

Many facilities around the state have meshed bowling with other activities, ranging from bars and restaurants all the way to outdoor entertainment, all of which can remain open to drive revenue. Centers that have diversified their revenue streams see a slight leg up when compared to the more traditional bowling centers.

Goergen’s 24-lane Northern Lanes Recreation is also home to a lounge and bar in addition to two beach volleyball courts. Still, opening just a small portion of his business didn’t seem worth it.

“To turn on your air conditioning and bring staff in, you’re actually losing money, especially during the summer,” Goergen said. “We stayed closed.”

Westgate Bowling Center in Comstock Park is home to 60 lanes and its ownership has diversified in an unconventional way. 

Westgate is home to 14 individually-owned and operated beauty salons that take residence in individual suites maintained by Westgate’s staff.

Salons also have had a rough path through the pandemic, finally reopening in mid June.

“To be honest, we are family-oriented so we did give everyone breaks on their rent during the pandemic because they weren’t able to have any income, either,” said Jena Kehoe, general manager at Westgate. “In order to keep tenants and the business relationships fair for fellow human beings, we didn’t start charging rent until they were allowed to work again.”

Even when proprietors get the green light, many of them are wondering how quickly crowds will come back to bowling centers, or if many people will stay away out of health concerns.

“There are a lot of unknowns, which is one of the reasons I would love to open just to start testing the waters and seeing some of our regular customers and being able to show them that we think we would be able to do a good job (operating safely),” Kehoe said. 

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