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Steller column: Social value of Tucson bowling alley sold short in county plan

Steller column: Social value of Tucson bowling alley sold short in county plan

The financial argument could go either way on Pima County’s planned purchase of Golden Pin Lanes.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the board majority could be right that the purchase will save the county money by getting various offices out of leases, and it could make a convenient, consolidated site for county services.

Pima County Supervisors Ally Miller and Steve Christy could be right that the county board is rushing into the purchase at a time when the county has greater needs for what could end up being about $7 million — $2.85 million for the purchase and $4 million more in renovations.

But I think they all missed a bigger point in making their political and financial arguments. The loss of a 48-lane bowling center will be a major blow to the social life of the city, especially the Flowing Wells and Miracle Mile area where it’s located.

Golden Pin has been there, on the north side of Miracle Mile just west of North Fairview Avenue, for about 58 years. It’s the metro area’s biggest bowling center, and it’s the place where many tournaments have taken place and leagues play. In the winter season, which just ended, you’ll find all 48 lanes full three nights a week.

It’s also a Tucson institution where generations have bowled.

The man who is the head of maintenance at Golden Pin, Garry Campbell, started working there when he was a student at Flowing Wells High School. That was 43 years ago. His mother worked there for 35 years, some of them overlapping his years.

Caryn Bustos, the general manager of Golden Pin, bowled in the junior league there.

“I grew up here bowling,” she told me Tuesday.

Bustos refers to Golden Pin as a “bowling center,” a more neutral phrase than the old-fashioned label, “bowling alley,” that I use. She’s worked at this one for most of the last 20 years.

Bustos attended the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday morning, and it bothered her to watch Supervisor Miller label the property as a risky purchase because of possible asbestos.

“We took pretty good care of this place,” she said. “This building is solid. The roof isn’t caving in or falling down.”

Most impressive of all is the renovated 11th Frame Bar & Grill. It’s a beautiful, open spot that was completed just a year ago. Bustos explained that the work was to be done a couple of years ago, but there were delays.

“It came out spectacular,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better.”

County officials pointed to this as a peculiarity of the property — that an owner would put money into renovating part of a property he was trying to sell. But it makes sense if you imagine the owner wanting to improve a bowling center for sale to a buyer who wanted to continue in the business.

The problem, of course, is that no one who wanted to keep the bowling business going offered anything close to what owner Don Allan was asking, about $3 million.

The business may be a going concern, but bowling simply is not the “highest and best use” of the property anymore, as the appraisal contracted by the county made clear.

That meant that if Allan was going to maximize the price of the place, he was going to sell to someone who would convert it to another purpose.

Selling it to a bowling concern would only lose him lots of money.

The fact that it was the county that ultimately made the first successful bid could be a coincidence. Or it may be a sign we are overpaying. The appraisal came in at $2.2 million, $650,000 under the agreed price that the board approved Tuesday.

Golden Pin will stay open until next June, when there is a professional bowling tournament there. After that, the current 33 employees will have to have other jobs.

And Tucson will be left without its last league bowling center that is not part of a chain. Vantage owns four of them: Cactus Bowl, Tucson Bowl, Lucky Strike Bowl and Fiesta Lanes. Then there is Brunswick Zone Camino Seco Bowl on the east side, part of the Brunswick chain. Bedroxx Bowling in Marana doesn’t host league play or tournaments.

Prices could rise. Certainly programs like Kids Bowl Free, which allows children two free games of bowling per day in the summer months, will be missed in this poor neighborhood that can use more things to do out of the summer heat.

When it’s renovated by the county, the building will house “social services” such as a health department clinic. But those will never compete with the significance Golden Pin has played as an active social center for generations of Tucsonans.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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