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Made to Bowl; Born to Rock

Legends – like Asbury Lanes – never die.  They get reborn.

By Evan Henerson

Asbury Lanes began its life over half a century ago as a traditional recreation option in an otherwise nondescript town on the Jersey Shore. When bowling started to lose popularity in the mid 1980s, the venue’s operators added music to try to keep existing customers and attract new ones.

That’s when Asbury Lanes underwent the first of its transformations, becoming one of the initial prominent concert-bowling centers.

“It was really a punk concert venue with bowling. They were focused on the punk genre, all local bands and talents, and from what I understand, they operated that way for 10 to 15 years,” said Kris Des Roches, the Brunswick representative who would work on the facility’s later transformation, “and then it eventually started to fade off.”

As the town of Asbury Park faced economic hard times, the center declined right along with it. Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, master developer iStar began purchasing distressed buildings along the waterfront, including Asbury Lanes. After a closing and renovation that lasted nearly two years, the restored Asbury Lanes reopened in July with the city’s native son, Bruce Springsteen, playing a set and reflecting on his status as an “old homeboy.” It’s not known whether the man who would become the Boss ever rolled a few balls at the Lanes during his teen years. But the musician who would hit the scene with his album “Greetings from Asbury Park” was a regular performer at the nearby watering hole, The Stone Pony.

No matter how great the reborn facility looks now, people acknowledge that a faction of devotees were unenthusiastic at what the renovation would bring. Writing for the Asbury Park Press, John Bazley, a native of nearby West Long Branch reminisced about the venue’s magic and doubted whether it could be reproduced.  “Something you’ll learn by speaking with anyone who frequented the Asbury Lanes is that everyone has a Lanes story,” Bazley wrote, “and in most stories, the music comes second.”

The Asbury Lanes of yore might be largely unrecognizable to anybody checking out the facility today. Bowling capacity has gone from 16 to 6 lanes and the music – local, regional and national acts – is king, along with upscale food options at the new in-center, 24-hour diner, all of which was dreamed up by operators Brian Cheripka, senior vice president of iStar, and David Bowd of Salt Hotels.

“Asbury Park really is all about community,” said Bowd who relocated to New Jersey from England 12 years ago. “It’s a really eclectic mix of people from all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. And the lanes for many years  —  as bowling lanes tend to do —  became central to the community.“

It might have been this status as a community centerpiece that saved Asbury Lanes from becoming a complete tear down. The facility was in decay and, with a new Asbury Hotel (another iStar development) on track to open in 2016, project managers weren’t about to have it be anything other than spectacular. But the sport needed to be part of this revamp, said Bowd, especially given the fact that iStar chairman Jay Sugarman was an avid bowler.

“We said, ‘How do we create a really world class bowling center, but also a world class music and events venue?’” said Bowd. “We spent a couple of years on market research asking what are people looking for? What are bowlers looking for? What does Jay want out of this process? What is the community reaction to the lanes and the renovation of the lanes?”

“Everything we have always done in Asbury Park – the Lanes, the Asbury Hotel and now our new project, the Asbury Ocean Club – have all been about [being] truly local,” Bowd continued. “And it’s not about paying lip service to a local experience. It’s really about putting the hotel in the center of the community and the Lanes in center of community. There’s an incredible amount of emotion with the Lanes. There were a lot of people who felt that it shouldn’t change at all. But in reality, it had to change.”

Nostalgia and fondness for the Lanes as it had been caused developers to look for ways to keep the original bowling equipment. Although some of it could be repurposed, a total save proved unfeasible, according to Des Roches.

“It was an old AMF installation with the pinsetters right up against the wall,” said Des Roches. “They wanted to make it retro and fit a lot of the old equipment in. For us to put in new equipment and try to match it up with the used equipment would be very difficult to get everything to mesh well, and from an operational standpoint, it would be tough for them to maintain.”

In recreating the center’s retro look, the developers wanted to keep everything exposed and visible, including the pin setters.  This would have presented a potential hazard during concerts when the lanes are covered up to allow patrons to rock out and dance. Concert goers, potentially holding beer bottles, who are partying in close proximity to operational  machinery, could be a bad mix.

Brunswick ended up creating a 10-foot tall clear masking unit out of plexiglass which permits people to see the pin setters operating without offering access. Asbury Lanes’ website boasts the “back-to-the-future pin setting system.”

“It’s the only place where we’ve done this so far,” Des Roches said. “People always have an interest in how these things work, and what do they look like. This allows the customers to see how it works which I think has gone over really well.”

The exterior sign has been restored and is back in place. Inside, a set of industrial walls flank the lanes. Over the bar sits an enormous American flag fashioned out of red, white and blue bowling balls.

The lanes themselves are popular and in near constant use. Since reopening, Asbury Lanes has hosted everything from league nights to lessons for the Boys and Girls Club to drag queen bowling. For many of the concerts, the lanes stay operational. A larger selling act will often prompt operators to cover the lanes to increase the venue’s capacity.

“It’s a very cool looking facility,” Des Roches said. “We build a lot of family entertainment centers and we do it really well. This is just one of those things that’s very on trend and a little bit different than what we normally are involved with, and so I think that adds to the excitement of the project. They really did an amazing job of keeping with the history of the bowling center.”

Courtesy of International Bowling Industry Magazine
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