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VOL. 121 | NO. 147 | Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bowled Over

Sale of Summer Avenue's Imperial Lanes marks farewell to a piece of local history

By Andy Meek

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CLOSING TIME: Shane Lumpkin, an employee of Imperial Lanes on Summer Avenue, cleans one of the bowling alley's lanes. The Memphis facility could be bulldozed as early as January. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

Imperial Lanes at 4700 Summer Ave. soon will meet the same fate as a set of pins after a perfectly rolled strike.

A real estate deal is in the works to sell the property on which the bowling alley sits, a place that's become a Memphis landmark since it opened in December 1958. The details haven't been finalized, but the project apparently would involve knocking down the 48-lane bowlers' hotspot and putting up a retail strip center, according to sources close to the deal.

In preparation for its eventual closing, all the bowling alley's equipment will be auctioned. Bobby McKenney, Imperial's manager, already has notified league bowlers they should make other arrangements. The bowlers had been preparing for the fall league season that would have started in late August.

Pinned by uncertainty

For now, though, the bowling alley is still open 24/7, just like it's always been. No closing or demolition dates have been scheduled yet - to the chagrin of McKenney, who's worked there for 33 years.

"I wish I knew - it would help me out a whole lot," he said.

The project appears to be tied to the recent acquisition and demolition of the nearby Admiral Benbow Inn at 4720 Summer Ave. Michael and John Turley bought the 3.58-acre hotel property for $660,673 in October and the hotel was demolished a few months ago.

That property most recently was appraised for $1.05 million, according to Chandler Reports, www.chandlerreports.com. The bowling alley property's most recent appraisal was for $1.8 million.

Efforts to reach the Turleys were unsuccessful, but McKenney and another local bowling industry official agreed the same owners have been working to acquire both properties.

"The guy who bought the Admiral Benbow told me he had plans to put in a strip mall, and I believe that's tied in with this property here," McKenney said.

"The guy who bought the Admiral Benbow told me he had plans to put in a strip mall, and I believe that's tied in with this property here."
- Bobby McKenney
Manager of Imperial Lanes

Diana Wooten, administrative assistant for the U.S. Bowling Congress of Memphis, agreed and said she's heard the bowling alley will come down by Jan. 1.

"We're really sad about it, too, because it's the oldest one in the city," she said. "And I hate to see a bowling center taken to the ground."

Rolling toward what?

If the buyers are the same Turley brothers who purchased the hotel property, they are a pair of developers with professional ties deeply rooted in Memphis.

Their father was developer Dan Turley, who founded several real estate companies over the years and pushed a concept known as "garden apartments" - low-rises that are heavily landscaped. When former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout was in his mid-twenties, he tangled with Turley over a zoning proposal for apartments on what would later be the site of the Mall of Memphis. Rout credited the episode with later inspiring him to get into politics, according to news reports of the encounter.

The Turley brothers - no relationship to Harbor Town developer Henry Turley - have been involved in plenty of work in their own right. One of Michael's recent projects includes a condominium property at White Station Road and Sanderlin Avenue.

John is a real estate developer living in Knoxville.

"The land has been sold, but they haven't closed on the deal yet," McKenney said of the Imperial Lanes property.

A last holdout

In some ways, the bowling alley with the retro signage on the front was always a throwback to a different era. In a farewell essay about Imperial at www.memphisbowling.org, the USBC of Memphis writes that it was the only bowling hotspot in the city to operate without the convenience of automatic scoring or Cosmic Bowling - the glow-in-the-dark, dance club atmosphere some bowling centers take on during certain evenings.

At one time, Imperial also boasted a full-scale restaurant with chefs and waitresses. Don Tebbe was the bowling center's first general manager, according to the USBC. And among the highlights of his tenure, he coordinated the arrival of more than 16,000 female bowlers to a national tournament at the bowling alley in the 1960s.

"For now, bowling is still fine, as far as our open bowling goes, which is slow this time of year anyway," McKenney said. "But I've had people calling me who I haven't seen in 20 to 25 years that grew up here, whose parents bowled here. They're coming back, taking pictures, wanting bowling pins as souvenirs. It's a big deal to a lot of people."

'One of a kind'

There's been a spate of real estate activity nearby the bowling alley property along Summer Avenue in recent months that includes some additional high-profile closings. A few of them include Stein Mart, which closed its former flagship store on Summer last year.

In March came the announcement that the fruit and vegetable grocer Market Basket at 4862 Summer Ave. would close. And so it did.

Now it appears the end of Imperial will mirror that of Libertyland, the 30-year-old Memphis amusement park that closed last year. The park's assets - everything from roller coasters to games like Whac-a-Mole - were auctioned off in June.

Meanwhile, the farewell essay on Imperial Lanes on the Memphis Bowling Web site reads, in part, "From all the banquets and old-style scoring to all the city tournaments and state tournaments and special events, Imperial was one of a kind."

PROPERTY SALES 91 91 21,363
MORTGAGES 63 63 16,257