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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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Bye, bye, bowling?
Bye, bye, bowling?

Bowling centers fall into the gutter

If you do a Google search for the phrase "bowling is a dying sport," you will discover that folks have been predicting the demise of keggling since the dawn of the digital age.

However, that speculation recently turned into reality in South Milwaukee and Waukesha when AMF Bowling Worldwide abruptly closed the AMF South Park Lanes and AMF Waukesha Lanes.

Bowlers had flocked to the two large bowling centers for generations.

American Machine and Foundry (AMF) began in 1900 as a manufacturer of equipment for the tobacco industry. The company invented the pinspotter in the 1940s, revolutionizing and automating the game. After World War II, the company began expanding its bowling business and later turned to manufacturing sports equipment and bicycles. At one time, AMF owned Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. and Hatteras Yachts, but it remains the largest operator of bowling centers in the nation, by far.

Bowling peaked as a sport in the mid-1960s with approximately 12,000 bowling centers built mostly in blue-collar neighborhoods across the United States. By 2011, the number of certified bowling centers had shrunk to 5,160, according to the United States Bowling Congress.

The closings in South Milwaukee and Waukesha came in the aftermath of AMF filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2012. It was the second bankruptcy filing for the Mechanicsville, Va.-based company in 11 years.

Last year, AMF merged with Strike Holdings LLC to form a new company, Bowlmor AMF.

Bowlmor AMF put some of its 300-some bowling centers up for sale but apparently could not find suitable buyers for the South Milwaukee and Waukesha sites.

South Milwaukee Mayor Eric Brooks said the closure of South Park Lanes is a significant blow to his community.

"It’s clear that AMF South Park Lanes has a special place in many hearts in South Milwaukee and the South Shore," Brooks said in his mayoral blog.

Brooks pursued an explanation for the closures and received a statement from Bowlmor AMF: "After a comprehensive analysis, we recently made the decision to close our AMF South Park 586 location. This was a very difficult decision and we are grateful to the community for their patronage and support over the last 60 years…"

The company encouraged bowlers in the Milwaukee area to continue to support its two remaining local bowling centers at 7505 W. Oklahoma Ave. in Milwaukee and AMF Bowlero Lanes at 11737 W. Burleigh St. in Wauwatosa.

The South Shore, which for generations has been a hotbed for bowling, is now relegated to a handful of smaller neighborhood centers. The Red Carpet Lanes closed its large centers near General Mitchell International Airport and South 27th Street years ago.

Waukesha still has the Sunset Bowl Entertainment Center, 333 W. Sunset Dr.; Fox Run Lanes, 2440 W. Sunset Dr.; and Fracaro's Lanes, 1430 White Rock Ave.

The closed AMF centers in South Milwaukee and Waukesha are locked and dark. Unless a buyer is found, they will remain dark until they ultimately are demolished. From a commercial user standpoint, it’s difficult to imagine repurposing a bowling alley into anything but another bowling alley.

I have an overwhelming urge to drop in a quote from "The Big Lebowski" right about here. But I can’t find one that doesn’t have an "F" bomb in it. Given the demise of bowling, "The Dude" might be a human time capsule.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

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