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By Don’s Early Light: Bowling for Respect in Hartford

Mark Hamilton looked out over the group Wednesday night, his eyes searching their concerned faces.

“This is probably the first time many of you have seen each other since the lanes closed,” Hamilton said in his greeting. The crowd of nearly 50 bowlers and supporters sitting in the Hartford High cafeteria murmured their assent.

Hamilton, the Hartford High bowling coach, welcomed them and thanked them for their support. Then, forcefully but quietly, simply but eloquently, Hamilton leaned over the lectern and summed up the situation: “It’s either going to happen or it’s not. That’s where we are now.

“We can’t go back. We’ve got to look forward.”

If you are a bowler in the Upper Valley, the reality of those words struck you right in the gut like a 7-10 split. Since the closing of the Upper Valley Lanes and Games last August, bowlers throughout the area have wondered what will become of them and their sport. Now they were facing the reality that they could not save it at all.

When the lanes closed down nearly a year ago, there was talk the potential new owner wanted to re-open the lanes.

The deal never happened.

While public talk centered around a potential purchase by owners of The Car Store dealership in Norwich, behind-the-scenes bowling pro Jimmy Clark and assistant Mike “Soup” Cassidy were preparing their own 82-page proposal. With support from the Lake Sunapee Bank, Clark and Cassidy sought a purchase and sales agreement for the 4.7-acre site and the building.

But though they dealt in good faith, the pair were dealt a crushing blow when building owner Upper Valley Land Corp. recently signed a purchase and sales agreement with the Car Store instead.

So they came to the Hartford cafeteria Wednesday, looking for answers and eager to lend their support. For more than an hour they listened to Hamilton, the school’s bowling coach and the sport’s Pied Piper in town along with Clark and Cassidy as they presented the facts and the related issues. It was not a pretty picture.

You see, unspoken in Hamilton’s short synopsis is the most critical and cruel fact of all: Time is running out and the options are few.

The high school team is suffering — once it boasted 17 members, today Hamilton has only seven. The leagues that filled the house night after night have been forced to seek other bowling centers — Springfield, Vt., Claremont, Randolph. But many of the local bowlers have chosen to stay home rather than make the long trek.

While their hearts are in the right place and their passions directed in a positive fashion, the truth is the numbers are overwhelming. They are alone, with no building to buy; no available land to purchase if they sought to build and no money around to pay for the project.

They are not CEO’s of million-dollar corporations; they are not managers of international foundations, they are just everyday people like you and me. They answer to first names like Janice, Rusty, Katie, Mike. They are your neighbors and friends, kids and acquaintances.

And all they want is a place to bowl.

One after another, members of the audience gave testimony to the positive experiences of the activity. They were preaching to the choir. Those voices are going to be needed outside to entice donors to help with the project.

“This isn’t just about the bowlers,” said Clark. “It’s about the community.”

And a community whose net reaches far wider than just White River Junction — encompassing New Hampshire as well as Vermont.

The building would be filled some days with bowlers and companions representing businesses and institutions like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Dartmouth College, Hypertherm, Cardigan Mountain School, Merry Meadow Farm. To say nothing of the many birthday celebrations and state bowling tournaments that found a home in a building no longer in use.

“The model is there; we’ve shown there is money to be made,” said Clark, discussing the viability of a bowling center in the Upper Valley. “It can pay itself back in no time. There’s really no overhead. It’s a small gold mine.”

The audience spoke of committees to be set up, of politicians to be lobbied, of big names to be approached for fundraising. Ideas were bandied about including becoming a nonprofit operation or turning it into a cooperative.

“This isn’t going to get done with bake sales,” Hamilton said. “We need people with deep pockets who can relate to what we are trying to do.”

The crowd remained positive throughout the evening. There was talk of restaurants — food is a critical component to this operation — that wanted to partner in a new building; there was talk of adding a sports bar and a kids’ arcade.

But in the end, there were more questions than answers. Most importantly, what was to become of the equipment remaining in the old building — the lanes, the machines, the computers.

It remains to be seen what the new owners will do. They could rip it all out and trash it, sell it to the highest bidder or even donate it to the local bowlers.

But even the donation aspect is not that simple. According to Mark LaPointe, the former Lanes and Games technician, it will cost between $800 and $1,200 to pull out each lane — properly — and then another $1,200-$1,500 to install them ... not counting the cost of hauling and storage,

Downsizing to just 16 lanes was one idea. Another, to eliminate candlepin bowling, was met with a chorus of complaints.

But hard decisions must be part of the battle plan.

According to Clark, to start from scratch and buy the land and build a complete facility will cost from $1.5 million to $2 million. It’s a staggering sum, especially to a crowd of working people and senior citizens. But no one was backing away from the task. They just want to bowl.

“We’re not going to sit back and do nothing,” Hamilton declared. “Take this to the community. Talk to people and let’s try and find ones who can help us.

“It’s up to us to save this.”

Fighting words to carry them out. Friends, hugging and laughing into the spring evening. But still no closer to a home for their bowling passion.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.