Bowling helped get me to Tucson, and for that I will forever be grateful.
Granted, the $80 "scholarship" I earned for winning an all-ages youth tournament when I was 17 (the kid I crushed for the title was 11) didn't really make much of a dent in the costs associated with attending the University of Arizona. But in my book it still counts as a building block for this life.
The workingman's game has always had a special place in my sports fandom—having a way distant cousin on the pro circuit and working the ESPN broadcasts will do that—yet I somehow went almost 15 years without playing in a league until getting back to the lanes in 2009.
Now, I do a league every year, and each summer I peruse the available league options at Pima County's nine bowling centers.
That's why it saddened me when I recently learned that number was about to drop to eight because one of Tucson's oldest lanes is about to shut down after more than 50 years.
Cactus Bowl, which has operated near Alvernon Way and 29th Street since 1959, will close its doors for good on Aug. 31, leaving us with just six centers within the city limits and one each in Marana and Green Valley.
There were at least a dozen bowling alleys within 20 minutes of me while growing up in New Jersey, and that was even after they turned my main stomping grounds, Clark Lanes, into a Barnes & Noble.
But it's not all bad news, fellow bowlers. While one of the most well-regarded centers is soon to be gone, nearly everything good about Cactus Bowl is being injected into revamping one of the area's least thought of ball-and-pins establishments: Santa Cruz Lanes.
Santa Cruz, just northeast of Interstate 19 and Ajo Way, is in the midst of a massive renovation that will culminate Sept. 1, when it is rebranded as Cactus, complete with most of the long-established leagues that have called Cactus home.
Dale Schnell, who has served as general manager at either Cactus or Santa Cruz for the past 18 years, said he expects about 75 percent of league bowlers from Cactus to slide over to the new locale this fall. When they show up they'll find brand-new, state-of-the-art synthetic lanes (replacing the rickety wooden lanes that were installed when Santa Cruz opened in the 1970s) along with new ball returns, new seating areas and plenty of other upgrades.
There will even be Wi-Fi, said Schnell, in a passing shot at what he considers the main competition for bowling centers over the past five years: hand-held technology.
"People just want to sit home and play with their cellphones or iPads," he said.
Cactus and Santa Cruz make up two-fifths of Vantage Bowling Centers, a locally owned company that also operates Fiesta Lanes, on River and Oracle; Lucky Strike Bowl, on Speedway near Alvernon; and Tucson Bowl, on 22nd Street near Kolb. There are also four independent centers around the region: Camino Seco Bowl, on the eastside; Golden Pin Lanes, on Miracle Mile; Bedroxx, in Marana; and the decrepit Green Valley Lanes down south.
We've been a nine-alley community since Bedroxx took over much of the space where the ill-fated Gotham/New West nightclubs caused chaos and mayhem on Ina Road in the 1990s. And though each center has its faults, flaws and scars, there had been no need to make any significant changes.
Then the Tucson Unified School District stretched out it tentacles and screwed with bowling.
Cactus Bowl used to have 60 lanes split into two sections of its Alvernon Way building. But in 1981, Vantage shut down the northern 28 lanes—using them to help build Fiesta—and leased the empty space to Pima Community College for its adult education program. It was a symbiotic relationship for more than 30 years, until TUSD school closures caused a domino effect when the district shut down Roberts Elementary and moved those students to nearby Naylor Middle School to form a K-8 campus.
Pima jumped at the chance to use the larger, vacant Roberts campus, thus leaving the north half of Cactus vacant. Vantage put that space back on the market, but Schnell said most interested parties wanted the entire Cactus property, thus setting in motion the Santa Cruz rebranding.
Consolidating the number of available lanes might be one of the few things that can help the bowling industry, which has tried offering drink specials, all-you-can-play packages and laser light shows. Golden Pin has even started booking local comedians in its banquet room once or twice a month in an effort to draw customers other than diehard bowlers.
Though the Santa Cruz-to-Cactus makeover won't be complete for some time — "I won't be done with everything I want to do until maybe Thanksgiving," Schnell said — a late-afternoon visit to Santa Cruz last week showed the inside belies its ghetto look from outside.
The new lanes, known officially as Qubica AMF SPL Lanes, give off a shine that resembles a freshly washed Cadillac. Plans are in place to redo the bar area, possibly converting part of it into a child care center for league bowlers unable to get a sitter (like this guy). And Cactus Bowl's Andy Clarke Pro Shop is scheduled to move over in August.
The arcade and "redemption center" just inside the front doors is fully stocked with cheesy prizes you can claim by redeeming tickets, almost like a miniature Peter Piper Pizza but without the 40-person birthday parties.
And not everything is going to change, I've been told. The trippy, multicolored, bowling ball-adorned carpet will remain, as will the massive blue bus sitting near the parking lot's entrance.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm in the market for a new bowling league each year, though I've done the same one at Golden Pin the last three years. Santa Cruz is the logical choice for me, living in Sahuarita and all (I'm completely unwilling to bowl in Green Valley), and with all the changes it's likely to win my business for the 2013-14 season.
Care to join me?