ILWACO, Wash. — Carea and Sean Kuhn love to bowl. After years away from the sport, the couple have come back with a passion. They joined a league and a locally sponsored team – Rod’s Lamplighter – and compete every Tuesday night. The one catch? The Long Beach couple have to drive across the river to Astoria to do it.
Over the last year Hilltop Bowl in Ilwaco has been closed more often than not, open only for some league play and prescheduled parties.
“We bowled there a couple times but weren’t really happy,” said Sean.
“It wasn’t being managed very well and it wasn’t open, so we came over here,” said Carea. “I’d prefer not to drive over here.”
And they aren’t the only ones. A quick count at last week’s match showed nearly 10 Long Beach Peninsula bowlers also making the drive to play.
“We like the people that we’re bowling with,” said Carea, “(There’s) a lot more camaraderie.”
The situation these bowlers find themselves in is not just a local phenomenon. Last month, Businessweek magazine published an article chronicling the steady demise of bowling alleys in the United States.
In 1998 – the year the bowling-centric comedy “The Big Lebowski” debuted – the U.S. was home to nearly 5,500 alleys, a number that dropped to 4,061 by 2012 – a 25 percent decrease.
The bowling boom in America began following World War II, when some 2,000 new alleys opened between 1945 and 1958. At that time, the American Society of Planning Officials reported that “the bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important – if not the most important – local center of participant sport and recreation.” The growth spurt included a two-lane alley installed in the White House in 1947.
During that time, bowling alleys were a social gathering point for many Americans according to Marcel Fournier, who owned a chain of bowling centers in New York state starting in the 1960s, and who was quoted in the Businessweek story.
“The bowling alley was the blue-collar country club,” he said, with most of the business coming from people competing in weekly leagues. However, as the workforce changed and access to other recreational activities expanded, interest in bowling leagues waned.
While the number of Americans who bowled increased 10 percent from 1980 to 1993, those who belonged to leagues declined by 40 percent.
And while league members paid to play each week, occasional bowlers were a less reliable source of income for alley owners.
By the late 1990s, bowling alleys were regularly being converted into other things – indoor amusement parks and arcades that happened to offer a few lanes for bowling.
The Hilltop Bowl in Ilwaco, which was built in 1964 and has been owned by Ron and Colleen Dietl since 2007, is for sale with an asking price of $299,000. Listing agent Chris Levno said he has seen “some interest” in the property, but for potential “other uses.” The real estate listing suggests it would “make [a] good sports bar or family entertainment center.” The Dietls, who were not available for comment, do plan to have the lanes open on a limited basis this fall for bowling leagues.
Carea Kuhn lamented the decline in the sport last week, saying that she learned how to play when she was in the Girls Scouts as a kid. She noted kids these days seem to be less interested in those kinds of activities, leading to less involvement in the sport.
“Those are the kind of things that kids used to do, and a lot of the younger generation are just not doing any of the recreational things that we did when we were younger,” she said.