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The smoking ban drove many bowlers out of the alleys into the streets; Boardwalk Bowl is bringing them back

By Sarah Phelan

WHEN THE SEASIDE COMPANY bought the Surf Bowl in October 1994, rumors flew that it was going to close the aging facility and replace it with another amusement park ride. Instead, the Seaside Company decided to give the alley a major face-lift. After several years of revising plans, the Surf Bowl finally closed last May, reopening in October with a new look and a new name: Boardwalk Bowl.

When asked what's changed, Boardwalk Bowl director Willie King sums it up in one word: everything.

"We've completely gutted it, put in all new equipment, except maybe for a nacho warmer. And we've reshuffled everything to make better use of the space," says King.

The remodel cost $3.6 million--money which could have been better spent, says King, if the goal was simply to turn a profit.

"We did it for a myriad of reasons," he says. "The facility was tired. It needed a big change inside and out. And we have a commitment to maintain a sports facility for local children, high school and college kids, adults and seniors."

According to King, more than 90 percent of Boardwalk Bowl's customers come from Santa Cruz County, 60 percent of them from the city. And, unlike many bowling facilities, Boardwalk Bowl does 80 percent of its business from open play and birthday parties, not from leagues--which goes a long way toward explaining why it has survived social and economic changes.

"We worked really hard to find out what people wanted," says King. "And the answer was fun things, like Atomic Bowling, great birthday experiences, a better arcade--and a great parking lot, instead of the crappy one we inherited."

With Felton Bowl closing in March, Boardwalk Bowl and Cabrillo Lanes will be the only games in the county, but, as King recalls, there used to be many more.

"There was one on the site where the Catalyst now stands, one in Capitola, and many years ago, one in Boulder Creek."

Why does King think so many bowling alleys have closed?

"In part because they didn't make the necessary investment, and in part because they were too dependent on league bowling. And when smoking was outlawed, they found their base driven away, and they didn't know how to be innovative."

Boardwalk Bowl, 26 lanes, 115 Cliff St., Santa Cruz; 426.3324

Cabrillo Lanes, 24 lanes, 580 Auto Center Dr., Watsonville; 724.1155

Felton Bowl, 10 lanes, 6164 Highway 9, Felton; 335.7137

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From the January 9-16, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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