Success is right up Big Apple's alley

AS NEW York struggles to resurrect its economy, it needs powerful new engines of growth. Wall Street and the property market may never be the same following the recession.

The answer may lie in bowling alleys. But not any old bowling alley where large beer bellies and bad shirts rule the roost. The city is embracing a new generation of big-money, overhauled alleys which have strict dress codes.

The Leisure Time Bowl at Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal, for example, has recently gained velvet ropes staffed by a black-suited bouncer.

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"We don't allow those real large jeans that almost fall off your hips," said Ayman Kamel, the executive general manager at the Leisure Time Bowl. "Or those bandannas that represent gangs. None of those big visual gold chains." How about a bowling shirt? "Well, as long as it's a fine-looking shirt."

By the end of January, the venue will be renamed Frames, and will open a swanky restaurant and VIP lanes (two private lanes with a bar), followed by a nightclub later in the year.

Further down the block, at 42nd and 12th Avenue, is Lucky Strike Lanes, another upmarket alley that opened in 2008 and is an offshoot of a chain that began in Hollywood.

In October, a 90,000sq ft Bowlmor alley is set to open as the largest retail tenant in the former New York Times building on West 43rd Street. It will cost more than $20 million (12.5m).

Bowling in these upmarket alleys is now often just a way to kill time between drink orders. The alleys rely heavily on corporate and private parties, with some customers never bothering to bowl.

Meanwhile, conventional alleys continue to close. In total, there are 23 bowling alleys in the city, according to the United States Bowling Congress, the sport's governing body. Back in the 1970s, it calculated there were close to 200.

Bowlmor is owned by Strike Holdings, and at its downtown headquarters chief executive Thomas Shannon spoke about the old bowling, and the new bowling that might save New York.

"It used to be that if you wanted to go bowling, you had to suffer some form of deprivation," he said. "Bad food – you know, the hot dog on a roller. Stale tap beer. No service.

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"They wanted the cheapest, most miserable experience," Shannon said. "I would describe it as a Stalinist experience."

The new alleys typically shun leagues. They don't want players sporting bowling outfits, excessive stomachs and carrying their own equipment.

Shannon showed plans for the forthcoming Times Square alley. Adorning the entrance will be Bowlmor Bob, a giant bowler in a red dinner jacket. The front desk will have a concierge. When you receive your bowling shoes, you can have the shoes you came in shined. Considering all this, Shannon wonders why his industry doesn't get more credit for the benefits it is bringing to the economy. "I don't think many people in government appreciate us," said Shannon.

At Lucky Strike, Ron Garcia, 36, a biotech salesman, was entertaining a friend from the west coast who had last gripped a bowling ball seven years ago. Strikes were infrequent. How did he feel about saving New York simply by levelling bowling pins? "Good," he said. "It's always good to save New York."

But it would be wrong to knock down hardened bowlers who prefer traditional venues – the ones you might find Homer Simpson playing in with his pals if he didn't live in Springfield. At the other end of the scale, there is Cozy Lanes in Ozone Park, Queens. It has 64 lanes. A VIP lounge? None planned.

Leagues are always going. No rock music muffles the sound of pins falling. As someone wrote in an online comment, it's not a place where you need to bring a credit card and take out a second mortgage on your home to bowl.

But the place has a tired feel. Scuffed linoleum. Bowlers grouse about their balls coming back with nicks and scratches. The other day, the AJ Transit Early Birds league was knocking down pins, paying about $3 a game, compared with the $11 paid by Bowlmor customers. The members did not voice much enthusiasm for the new upmarket alleys.

TC Newsome, 72, a retired transit worker carrying a 190-pin game average, said of the new alleys: "It's not bowling. It's for the younger generation that wants instant gratification. In bowling, it doesn't just come. You have to practise."

Down a few lanes was John Sutton, 68. "Maybe that disco bowling can (save the city]," he said. "But it's not saving bowlers. It's not saving me."

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