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Iconic Buffalo bowling alley's days could be numbered

For more than 55 years, Glenn Voelker has been minding the front counter at his family’s fourth-generation bowling alley in Buffalo.

He’s seen bowlers come and go, and leagues rise and fall, all along greeting his customers with a gentle, friendly smile on his rounded face. Through the years, countless Buffalonians have rolled strikes and gutter balls down his lanes, while even those who never visited are familiar with the iconic Voelker’s Lanes.

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Lately, though, he’s seen the popularity of bowling plummet, especially in the summer months.

And he’s seen the North Buffalo neighborhood around his long yellow-brick building deteriorate as businesses and population moved to the suburbs, leaving him with a lot of excess property he doesn’t have a use for.

Now, the historic and beloved bowling alley’s days may be numbered. Voelker and his family are “testing the water” to see if their 4 acres of buildings and land might be attractive for redevelopment, given their significant frontage on Elmwood Avenue just north of Delaware Park.

Glenn Voelker with his signature glass of black coffee in the bowling alley of his family's establishment on Aug. 8. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

That’s because the bowling alley’s surroundings are changing again, presenting new opportunities for the 67-year-old businessman. The presence of Wegmans Markets is helping to clean up the area. Amherst Street is gentrifying with new investment. And the city as a whole is on the upswing, with a host of new construction projects.

That’s because the bowling alley’s surroundings are changing again, presenting new opportunities for the 67-year-old businessman. The presence of Wegmans Markets is helping to clean up the area.

Amherst Street is gentrifying with new investment. And the city as a whole is on the upswing, with a host of new construction projects.

So while they don’t want to sell, they’re open to proposals that could make better and more profitable use of any or all of their land.

“We’re just looking for anything that will increase the income,” said Voelker, who recently retired and passed ownership of the bowling business to his niece, Krista.

And while Voelker’s bowling alley at 686 Amherst St. has over 75 years of venerable history behind it, even that would not be enough to save it, though it’s also not certain to close. “If the right apple falls from the tree, who knows?” he said. “Anything’s available if the price is right.”

That’s not what Alvin Conner wants to hear, but he understands why. “They have to do what benefits them,” the 77-year-old Buffalo bowler said, as he got ready for a league night. He’s been playing at Voelker’s “on and off” for over 60 years. “I would hate to see it close down, but I understand money is money.”

The scene

Inside Voelker Lanes on a Monday night, the stools at the long oval bar sat vacant, as a lone bartender waited eagerly for customers. An adjacent empty party room beckoned to no one in particular. Video and carnival games lined a ceramic-tile hallway leading to the mostly darkened main bowling alley, where Voelker stood behind his dated counter. A couple of dozen league bowlers gathered in a smaller secondary alley to play.

“It’s relaxing. It’s quiet. It’s comfortable,” said Eric McAdory, 55, of Cheektowaga, in his third season of league bowling at Voelker’s. “My dad used to bowl here, and he brought me here.”

1005469872 Voelker's kir#61

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GALLERY: A night at Voelker's Lanes

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Outside the brick-and-stucco building, a large faded neon green sign atop the roof proclaimed “Bowling” in big letters, while a dated white sign above the doorway announced it as Voelker’s Bowling, Lounge and Gameroom. The sign said it’s open until 4 a.m. daily, but that’s only from Labor Day to Memorial Day. During the summer, Voelker said, the hours are reduced to three nights a week, starting at 6 p.m. and running until midnight on Mondays and until 2 a.m. on the weekend, “if they’re busy.”

“We’re busy nine months of the year, and then it’s dead for three months,” said Voelker, whose family employs 20 to 25 people. “We’ve been in this bowling business for a long time. People used to bowl two to three times a week. Now they bowl once a week, and we took a hit.”

As a result, “we’ve got too much parking for the lack of business,” Voelker said, pointing to a former Pierce-Arrow Motor Co. showroom across the street that now houses just a deli, with vast amounts of unused space behind it. “It’s all wasted space. We’re trying to develop that.”

Looking for a partner

The slowdown in bowling and the surge of activity along key corridors in the city, including several renovated apartment buildings just to the north, is prompting the Voelker family to put their real estate holdings up for redevelopment under a “triple-net ground lease,” in which the tenants would agree to pay real estate taxes, insurance and maintenance costs.

The family does not want to sell land that has been in its possession for over a century, but it would seek to develop the site on its own or with a joint-venture partner based on tenant demand. Options range from the entire site to just portions of it.

But that doesn’t mean the bowling alley will close, said Gunner Tronolone, a broker at MJ Petrson Corp., citing ongoing league and other activities. Any project could take two to three years to finalize plans and obtain approvals, Tronolone noted. Until then, the business would continue as normal, and would then shift to Kenmore Lanes, which the family also owns.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Voelker. The family has been on the site since 1892, since Glenn’s grandfather opened a saloon in space he rented from a brewery. When Prohibition was enacted, virtually killing the alcohol industry, he bought the property “cheap” and kept it, even raising horses and chickens where the bowling alley now stands, Voelker said. Bowling was added in 1941, and the alley has been open ever since. The family bought their major rival, Kenmore Lanes, in 1979.

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GALLERY: Voelker's Lanes: Then and Now

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Over the years, he said, many people have inquired about whether the property was for sale, but they “offered everything and nothing,” with no formal bids. Today, though, business is diminished from what it used to be, as the regional uptick hasn’t carried over to bowling.

The entire property is just to the north of Delaware Park, the Scajaquada Expressway, Buffalo State College and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, at the southern end of a commercial district. Specifically, the sprawling real estate includes an L-shaped 3.38-acre parcel at Elmwood from Amherst to Marion streets, stretching west 600 feet toward Bridgeman Street, with a handful of commercial buildings.

There’s also a smaller, 0.46-acre plaza a block south at Elmwood and Woodette Place, and 0.31 acres at the northwest corner of Elmwood and Marion, consisting of a parking lot and a home. In all, there are 14 separate parcels.

The land fronting on Elmwood is the most attractive for redevelopment, said Tronolone, who is representing the Voelker family along with colleagues Dorothy Stalhnecker and Gary DeCarlo. By contrast, the rear land might only be needed for a larger project, he said.

The property already includes buildings for a CVS Pharmacy and an AutoZone store, and Voelker said there are no plans to uproot or change either one. But a small doughnut shop or similar additional retail could be good possibilities, as well as other kinds of clean and quality commercial development.

However, he did exclude certain businesses that he considered undesirable for the neighborhood, such as a tattoo shop, and also ruled out residential, saying the family has tried that before and found it too much trouble as a landlord compared to business tenants that only come calling once every three years or so.

“They’re much easier to deal with than a guy with a leaky pipe at midnight,” Voelker said.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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