Hip bowling alley adds new element to upper King in Charleston
In the near future, people will hurtle heavy round balls toward a set of pins down eight newly minted bowling lanes in a long-abandoned warehouse in downtown Charleston.
Hungry college students, neighbors and business people will crowd the 150-seat dining area for food and fixings prepared in an expansive central kitchen behind a 40-foot bar offering 14 beers on tap.
Children and adults will play vintage video games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, and partygoers will celebrate special occasions in an upstairs area with a full bar and private meeting room.
Those are all parts of The Alley, a 16,870-square-foot bowling center, restaurant and venue that soon will open on Columbus Street, adding an entertainment element to the rapidly changing Upper King Street corridor.
The owners hadn’t nailed down the opening date as of late last week, but they expect it to be ready soon.
The group is bringing bowling back to a part of the city where the last public lanes went dark decades ago. Records show the peninsula had two options for bowlers as far back as the 1940s and up through the 1960s. They included the M & M Bowling Alley, which later became Laurey’s at 52 George St., and the Crescent Bowling Center at 255 Meeting St.
“We knew we wanted to be on the peninsula,” said Jimmy Poole, who co-owns The Alley venture with brother Chris, longtime friend David Crowley and several silent partners.
It proved to be tricky. Crowley said they looked at several nearby locations, and even went so far as to secure an artist’s rendering for another property that’s close to the Columbus Street site, which is between a Piggly Wiggly supermarket and a U-Haul business.
“They wanted more capital, and it had significant structural issues, so we walked away from it,” Crowley said.
Jimmy Poole said the site they ended up picking wasn’t “on the radar” at first. The blocklong building was plenty big enough to house bowling lanes, a restaurant and other amenities. But it had one major shortcoming.
“It was a no-brainer if we could make the parking work,” Crowley said.
So they approached Evening Post Publishing Co., owner of The Post and Courier, which is across the street and has a gated employee parking lot. Through a deal with the media company, they secured more than 50 parking spaces before 5 p.m. and others afterward.
With that hurdle cleared, they focused on retrofitting the dusty, vacant warehouse into a new entertainment venue and lining up financial partners for the venture.
Structural obstacles met them head on, but after months of nailing down details and putting financing in place, they started construction in May with mechanical, electrical and plumbing system overhauls. They added a new kitchen with a double-sided 18-foot hood, a walk-in freezer and other amenities. The countertop on the nearby bar was crafted from the lanes of a defunct Chicago area bowling center.
They contracted out all the food preparation to Home Team Kitchen, a rebranded arm of Home Team BBQ, and scoured the nation for classic video and pinball games. They even visited numerous urban venues in New York City to see what worked there.
“The warehouse feel goes with what we were trying to create,” Jimmy Poole said. “We kept the bones and made it a nice place.”
Striking a deal
The Poole brothers had been down this road once before. In 2008, they transformed an aging bowling alley called Western Lanes in Raleigh into a destination venue by eliminating smoking, repainting it with retro colors, adding upbeat music and taking a hands-on approach to the operations.
The new name for the 24-lane North Carolina site, which had been around since 1961 under the same management, became The Alley, just like the one about to open in Charleston.
“I gave up the white-collar job for an opportunity to pass out bowling shoes and enjoy what I do for a living,” said Jimmy Poole, who previously worked in investment brokerage and real estate. “We truly changed the culture. It became an extremely fun place.”
His brother left his job as general manager of a pediatric office to delve 100 percent into the bowling concept and run it full time.
Crowley and Jimmy Poole had met many years earlier and remained friends. In 2009, they bumped into one another at a bar on Sullivan’s Island. Poole told him what he and Chris had accomplished with their bowling alley in Raleigh.
They tossed around the idea of the possibility of expanding the concept to Charleston. Crowley decided to partner with the brothers and later that year left his job in wealth management.
“I knew I could do it, but I had to leave my job to do it because we had to start raising capital,” Crowley said.
They checked out a space at Woolfe and King streets in 2009, but decided it wouldn’t work.
After deciding on the Columbus Street site in early 2011, they originally intended for it to be only a bowling alley with a bar catering to special events. But they expanded the scope because “Charleston is such a huge event town,” Crowley said.
With extra space to work with above the offices and restrooms, they added a second full bar and private meeting room for 100 or more guests.
A working basketball goal and ping-pong table do more than decorate a former loading dock, where indoor and outdoor seating are offered at The Alley’s entrance. Two 160-inch projection screens flank the bar area. A smaller bar sits beside the bowling lanes, and 16 cameras throughout the complex keep an eye on just about every angle of what’s going on.
Last-minute touches will include furnishings and artwork, but The Alley should be ready to open in a few days. When it does, it will provide jobs to 50 to 60 people. Another 30 will come with the kitchen.
“We never wavered in our belief in what this business will become,” Crowley said.
“It’s the best and most gratifying feeling to be where we are today,” Jimmy Poole said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise