(Editor’s Note: This piece on Cedar Lanes first appeared on Lebanon Sports Buzz on April 22, 2014. After months of rumors, it was recently announced that Cedar Lanes will close in May of 2016.)
BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – If Cedar Lanes was to ever go away, bowling in Lebanon would still exist. But it could never, ever be the same.
Situated on the west side of Route 72, Cedar Lanes is one of the first businesses to greet visitors to Lebanon from the south. But to us local yocals Cedar Lanes is a Lebanon County landmark, an historic sports venue, a place where every native has been at least once.
Built in the late 1950s, Cedar Lanes has been catering to bowlers of all abilities and disciplines for nearly 55 years. It is as synonymous with one sport in Lebanon as any other building in the County.
“It has a lot of tournament history, a lot of community history,” said Darrin Armel, Cedar Lanes’ managing owner. “I’ve never been around a place with so much bowling history. And this community is rich in bowling history. I would definitely say that it’s a cornerstone in the community, a local landmark. It’s definitely one of the older businesses in Lebanon. Very few have been around as long as this place has. If we had come in here and had a negative vibe or history, we would’ve changed the name.”
During its 55 years of serving the Lebanon community, Cedar Lanes has seen it all and been through more. It has weathered social change, upswings and downturns in the economy and bowling’s continuously fluxing position in the sports world.
“It was the previous owner’s persistence that led to it,” said Armel, a transplant from northern Virginia. “I had no desire, no want, no need, no interest in owning this place. He was an absentee owner in his 70s and the place was debt-free. When you’re not hands-on,it’s difficult. You’ve got to be involved.
“When we took over, this was the worst place in bowling I’d ever seen,” continued Armel. “But I thought to myself, ‘If it’s that bad now, think about the potential.’ It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it was a lot of work.”
That was 13 years ago, and since then all Armel has done is deploy and hone his economic theories on bowling. Where those begin and end are to cater to competitive bowlers who come together to form leagues.
For the most part, the bowling year is broken into two seasons – summer and winter. At its peak, Cedar Lanes was home to more than 1,200 league bowlers.
“I’m from a culture where you focus on league bowlers,” said Armel. “You take care of the league bowlers because it’s guaranteed income. In bowling, you never turn away guaranteed revenue. When I first took over, 75 percent of my focus was on the leagues and getting the interest back in league bowling. By our third year, we doubled our revenue. I felt confident I could turn it around, but I didn’t know how quickly. The one thing I knew was once I started focusing on it, it wasn’t difficult to grow it.
“Then in 2007, 2008, the economy tanked – we’re still not clear of that – the smoking ban went into effect and then they opened the casino (Penn National in Grantville) for gambling,,” Armel continued. “How we’re even still here is amazing to me. I think a lot of it is strategic planning. Some of it was me taking on more roles. But the more time I spend away from the customers is bad.”
Every summer, Cedar Lanes celebrates competitive bowling at its highest level when it hosts the longest running Professional Bowlers’ Association tour event in the Northeast. This year’s Pure-It Pro Shop Open will be contested July 25-27.
“We’ve had enough support locally,” said Armel. “But the whole PBA thing is a loss. We pay them and we have to give up the whole bowling center’s funds for an entire weekend. It’s definitely not a money maker, but the community enjoys it. How do you put a price on that type of exposure?”
While it may be the number-one participatory sport in the country, bowling continues to deal with the effects that technology has had on our culture. One of the ways Cedar Lanes combated the decline in activity was to institute a summer bowling program for kids when school is out, a program which has already signed up over 3,000 participants for the summer of 2014.
“In all sports, if we don’t keep youth involved, we’re not going to be here ultimately,” said Armel. “It’s (summer youth bowling) a free national program, but prior to that we had had our own version. It’s a phenomenal program. It allows us to get kids in here who we might not have been able to. But overall the future is not good. It’s going more towards corporate parties and birthday parties.
“It’s time,” Armel added. “People can’t commit to five hours. We’re starting to see what I call ‘The Microwave Effect’. You stand in front of a microwave and say, ‘Hurry up!’. Once you give people a taste of a shorter season, you can’t go back. I try to bust my butt, try to keep it where it is, and let attrition happen. But bowling as a sport, has been in decline for a long time.”
But the sport of bowling will always appeal to a certain brand of people. People who are hard-working, who crave the simpler things in life, who enjoy spending time with family. Like people who live in Lebanon.
“Bowlers are average middle-class people,” said Armel. “League bowlers are generally working middle-class people. The casual bowler is a mixture. You have some people who do have money. But the bulk of bowlers are from the lower to middle classes. They’re typically working-class people.
“Bowling is extremely seasonal,” Armel continued. “Our revenues drop 75 percent this week. But I’ve got leagues which missed days in the winter who have to make up missed weeks. May is our worst month of the year. There’s a two- or three-week gap where it’s horrible. You’ve got to make enough money in the fall to make it through.”