Pinned down by security

Bowling: Once Fort Meade's alley had few open lanes to spare, but after Sept. 11, drawing a crowd is harder than picking up a 7-10 split.

April 19, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For the price of a latte, the Fort Meade Bowling Center offers a cheerful assault on the senses.

Eyes train on gleaming lanes and a floor spangled with glowing geometric shapes, made all the brighter when fluorescent lights pan the room. Mouths water as the Pin Deck Cafe serves up fries -- crinkle-cut or beer-battered. Ears ring as bowling balls divide, then conquer, the pins, causing Army brass and children alike to squeal and jump. Even the computer screens are programmed to be friendly, displaying "Open Sesame!" when lanes are free.

The party atmosphere brings in regulars from as far as Virginia. But recently, some bowlers have decided that getting to the lanes is no longer worth the trouble, and business has fallen off by about a quarter.

After Sept. 11, Fort Meade restricted access to its Odenton base, which houses the National Security Agency. Armed guards man the gates, checking identification and vehicle registrations. Police search vehicles, occasionally peering into bowling bags. And after 9:30 p.m., the main gate closes, forcing those who live off the post but just across the street to drive about seven miles to get home.

Bowling Center manager Dean Ryan knows those barriers make a trip to his festive center a hard sell.

"Let's face it. We're all vying for recreational dollars," Ryan said. "And when it becomes a hassle for people to get to where they want to spend them, well, then they're going to go someplace else."

For Ryan, a retired sergeant major who served as enlisted adviser for the base's recreational activities, Fort Meade's crackdown couldn't have come at a worse time.

Once the province of the Schlitz-and-corn-dog crowd, bowling has become hip. Just a few seasons ago, retro bowling shirts, shoes and handbags shared space in fashion magazines with suede and fur ensembles. Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts are said to bowl at Greenwich Village's Bowlmor Lanes, where patrons feast on skewered Southeast Asian shrimp and fancy pizzas. Movies such as Kingpin and The Big Lebowski and the Comedy Central grudge match Let's Bowl have increased the sport's cool-kitsch factor.

Fred Groh, managing editor of International Bowling Industry Magazine, attributes the comeback to "glo-bowling," a trend that Fort Meade and other bowling centers use to infuse the lanes with a nightclub atmosphere that appeals to younger crowds.

Built in the 1970s, Fort Meade's bowling center is one of 61 such facilities on Army posts nationwide managed under the Army's Morale, Welfare and Recreation program. Large centers like Fort Meade's receive no taxpayer money, instead operating from what they earn. Armywide eligibility rules are the same: Civilian bowlers are welcome if escorted by players with military connections.

The Army renovated Fort Meade's lanes when it converted to a nonsmoking facility in 1990. But when Ryan became manager in 1996, he decided the center needed to do more.

He opened the center's restaurant, The Pin Deck Cafe, for breakfast and started buying "quality food." He improved the pro shop and installed glo-bowling lights. He promoted discounts for soldiers in uniform ($1 a game compared with $3 for the public) and told maintenance staff to better clean the lanes.

Suddenly chic

Two years later, Ryan said, "the word was out." Teen-agers who lived on the post brought friends for glo-bowling. Friday night's Ball and Chain League, where husbands bowl with their wives, expanded from 24 to 36 teams. Tournaments, a long-sought source of revenue, began booking weekends at the center. By 2000, Ryan estimates, the center averaged 1,700 bowlers a week, bringing its profit to $259,000 that year.

Dale Allen, a retired Navy lieutenant who helps develop early-warning systems for missile defense for the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the changes were long overdue.

"I bowled here in the '70s. The place didn't have a pro shop. It didn't have as many leagues. It was a dark, dingy mess," said Allen, a Columbia resident who, with his wife, Dotty, is one of the Ball and Chain Friday faithful. "Now, it's the standard. There is no other bowling alley in the service that provides what this one does."

Denise Conant, an X-ray technician for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, considers the lanes wholesome enough for her 2-month old baby, Camden, who joined her on a recent Ball and Chain night.

"It's nonsmoking," she said. "It's clean. It's pretty up-to-date. It's not very expensive."

But since Sept. 11, Ryan has lost 400 regular bowlers and four leagues. Several tournaments and birthday parties canceled reservations. And in December, for the first time since 1999, the lanes lost money.

A retired soldier, Ryan understands Fort Meade's security concerns. But the losses hurt.

"I took this very personally. And my employees take it personally," Ryan said. "We've worked very hard to get where we're at. You don't spend seven days a week here and not take it personally when you lose that many bowlers."

A bowling boon

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