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In Reno, Bowlers Pin Hopes on Taj Mahal of Tenpins : Recreation: The 80-lane National Bowling Stadium seeks to save a languishing city and a struggling sport.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sound of the future in downtown Reno--the Second City in a state with only two--came at 11:45 on Friday morning when 78 Nevada luminaries rolled out ceremonial bowling balls, unleashing the thunder of heavy resin on polished wood.

Fireworks blasted, a laser light show flashed and the doors of the National Bowling Stadium swung open. Here in the Biggest Little City in the World, where the unofficial state character flaw is hyperbole, this brand new Taj Mahal of Tenpins is being hailed as “the first wonder of the bowling world.”

The stadium decked out with 80 lanes, mauve leather seating for 1,200 and “the longest video display system in the world” was not constructed in the Nevada high desert merely for hosting the championships of a sport that started in the Stone Age. No, what the National Bowling Stadium was built to do is save a languishing city and a struggling sport.

Or, in the words of Reno’s Father Robert Bowling--"I’ve been Bowling all my life. I don’t play; that’s my name"--as he blessed the $45-million hall Friday: “Good and gracious God . . . may this Biggest Little City become the bowling capital of the nation and the world.”

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The question, though, is whether that’s enough, whether bowling can do for Reno what Luxor, the new MGM Grand and Treasure Island did for Las Vegas--drag it onto the nation’s family vacation radar.

“Both of these entities--Reno and bowling--are very much on the periphery of cities and sports,” said Dallas Willard, a USC professor of philosophy who specializes in sports and society. “Legitimacy in this culture is mainly a factor of recognition. . . . Given what Reno is normally associated with, bowling is a step up.”

Bowling was the king of sports when Reno was the queen of Nevada--around the time when men went to work, women stayed home and cars had fins much bigger than fish. After 40 years of losing luster as the world changed around them, both the sport and the city want it back.

“Our customers have stayed constant,” said Jay Milligan, president of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, which is pinning its hopes on tenpins. “We haven’t been able to attract the new development we really need. We’ve been battling for seven or eight years, since Las Vegas built the mega-resorts and attracted all the attention.”

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In the last three months of 1993, when Luxor, the new MGM Grand and Treasure Island opened for business, Las Vegas added nearly 11,000 hotel rooms; Reno only has about 15,000 total. Las Vegas lays claim to about 75% of the state’s gambling revenues, Reno 15%.

But the National Bowling Stadium, Milligan said, figures to change all that for this graceful little city on the Truckee River, once best known for “Reno-vation,” the 1930s gossip column moniker for quickie divorce and even quicker remarriage.

“We think that (the stadium) has proven to be the catalyst that has started the transformation of downtown Reno,” Milligan said.

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As the crown jewel of Reno’s redevelopment ambitions, the stadium is the first construction of consequence in nearly two decades, an era in which Las Vegas perfected the Gargantuan theme hotel-casino and built the biggest hotel in the world.

In contrast, the last big Reno building job was its MGM Grand, which has changed hands three times since 1978 and now does business as the Reno Hilton. Aside from the occasional hotel expansion, not much else has happened.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get up to Las Vegas,” said an apologetic Susan Rea, a longtime Reno resident and an avid bowler, as she prepared for her job as flag-bearer during the stadium ceremonies. “I guess I do care. It would be nice if we could compete better. But this’ll be great for Reno. We need it.”

“You know, somebody said once that Vegas has got the money, and Reno’s got the wealth,” remarked a slightly defensive Father Bowling after his invocation. “Wealth means history, climate, stability and culture. I think that’s a good distinction.”

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There are good signs for Reno beyond bowling. Ground has been broken on the Silver Legacy, a 1,720-room mining-themed hotel-casino scheduled to open in July. And on Wednesday, a group of West Coast developers proposed a 500-room casino and 6,000-seat arena that would be built along the Truckee River downtown.

Which is all well and good for this historic city in the shadow of the Sierra, which may be pointed in the right direction after two decades on the outs. But what about the sport that gave it the push?

If you listen to a cheerful Fred Florjancic, president of Brunswick Bowling & Billiards, the ancient sport is on “a wave of change.”

“As we seek to reinvent the business of bowling,” he said Friday, between the national anthem sung by a Captain-less Toni Tennille and the ceremonial bowling ball roll, “there now stands this magnificent showcase.”

Translation: Things are not so great out there after all.

The American Bowling Congress, the biggest sports organization in the world, turns 100 in September. And, yes, its 92nd annual amateur tournament that begins today will bring to Reno a record-breaking 91,000 bowlers by the time the championship ends in July.

However, the number of Americans who say they bowled at least once in the previous year has stayed pretty constant at 80 million for the last several years, said Jerry Schneider, spokesman for the American Bowling Conference.

And organized bowlers have bled out of leagues for the past decade, no matter what the sport does to try to keep them. ABC membership stood at just under 2.5 million men in 1994, down from 3.8 million 10 years earlier. The ranks of the Women’s International Bowling Congress fell from 3.9 million to 2.2 million in the same period, as afternoon ladies leagues disappeared from the suburbs.

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“Bowling is a victim of a changing society,” Schneider said. “There’s just so many other recreational, leisure-type activities that we’re competing with that we just didn’t have in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

Ramona Clark of Riverside, director of the California Women’s Bowling Assn., applauded the stadium on its opening day but sighed over the sport she loves so well.

“People who don’t bowl think of us all as potbellied beer drinkers,” the trim sportswoman said as the festivities ended. “That is not true. And we don’t call them bowling alleys anymore. We call them bowling centers.”

And the pristine National Bowling Stadium, which will play host to men’s and women’s amateur championships every third year for the next 15?

“It’s really going to help our sport,” she said.


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