Bowling alley supporters rally at city commission meeting

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

At the beginning of the Fort Scott City Commission meeting Tuesday, city staff had to carry extra chairs into the Commission Room at City Hall, and there still were people who had to stand in the back of the room.

Normally city commission meetings don't attract a high turnout, but Tuesday's meeting drew 64 residents who showed up to support the Fort Scott Fun Center, a bowling alley that was recently forced to close.

Of the large audience of supporters, nine expressed their concerns, sympathy and suggestions for solutions to commissioners about the bowling alley closing.

"The bottom is that Bob (Talbot) and I are at our breaking point," said co-owner Debbie Talbot. "Our bowling center is wore out, and we're wore out. This community needs a bowling center. Bob and I just can't put anymore money into it, and we will not take another loan out and get into further debt."

The Talbots purchased the alley 14 years ago. Co-owner Bob Talbot said his brother-in-law, who was a professional bowler, told him the bowling alley in Fort Scott was for sale. The couple invested a large amount of money into the business, he said.

Throughout the years, they've endured many hardships, Talbot said. At one of their reopenings, a sewer line erupted that released sewage throughout the building. Another time, lightning struck a pole that short-circuited a motor in a new air conditioning unit. On one occasion, a tire came off of a semi truck and slammed into the marquee. They've also been burglarized three times, she said.

But the worst damage came from the sky in December, when around 13 inches of snow and ice accumulated on the roof. The weight caved in parts of the roof. Water from the snow collapsed the ceiling tiles, flooding the locker rooms and bathrooms. Estimates for repair of the roof ranged from $78,000 to $38,000. She said their insurance company refused to cover the costs because of the roof's preexisting condition.

Talbot said in April the insurance is going to be canceled. She said she closed because she had no workman's compensation as of March 14.

"There has to be someway for us to help this situation, and I'm going to encourage you to look for that way," local resident Hazel Swarts said.

Every weekend for three months out of the year, the bowling alley hosts tournaments, local bowler John Hayes said. The competition attracts bowlers from out of town. Hayes said it pumps thousands of dollars into Fort Scott. Because of the closure, there were no tournaments, no money being spent, he said.

"A couple of weekends ago, I was in there early, and those small kids were filling up the bowling alley," Hayes said. "All of them were having fun."

Hayes also asked the city to help the Talbots get the bowling alley reopened. He said the city helped the Fort Scott Cinema by providing a street and a paved parking lot. He asked if the city could asphalt the gravel parking lot at the business. He asked if they can repair the damaged roof, as well.

"Who wants to drive 30 miles to Nevada? Who wants to drive 20 miles to Pittsburg just to bowl?" he said.

Debbie Talbot said they haven't received any help financially other than family, credit cards, loans, mortgages, and side jobs.

She said she has asked the city and county for help. County officials told her tax abatements are not available, because it's not a new business.

Fort Scott Economic Development Director Dale Bunn told Talbot there were no grant programs available. He suggested she contact the Kansas Small Business Development office to form a business plan. The plan could be presented to an investor for a loan to make repairs and upgrades to the facility, he wrote in a letter to Talbot.

Talbot listed numerous programs she has had to cancel since closing the bowling alley: physical education classes for area schools, bumper bowling for kindergarten classes from Uniontown, birthday parties and church functions.

Local resident Tena Smith told commissioners her daughter bowls every Saturday. She can bowl with her daughter, unlike other sports like softball, where she can only watch her play from afar.

"I would love to have it stay open for my kids," Smith said.

Commissioner Dick Hedges, who presided over the meeting for an absent Mayor Gary Billionis, said he appreciated the comments and that the commission will try to "find a way."

In other items discussed at the meeting, the following action took place:

* The commission held off on passing a resolution that places a question asking residents if they want to fund an aquatic center via a 1 percent sales tax over 10 years. City Manager Richard Nienstedt said eight-tenths of 1 percent will go for construction and equipping of the facility and two-tenths of 1 percent, which is estimated to raise $200,000 annually, will go for economic development. If passed, a special election will be held June 5.

* The commission approved the purchase of two Chevrolet Blazers, a total cost of $14,568, for the Fort Scott Police Department. The sport utility vehicles will be used by the department's two detectives.