Final Frame?

Tempe Bowl fights for its life and goes to war with the City of Tempe

Tempe Bowl has been a bowling center for nearly four decades. It's only been a music venue for the last year. But with the bowling alley recently experiencing financial difficulties so severe that its future is up in the air, it's the local punk-rock scene that has rallied behind this Tempe institution.

"The kids really appreciate everything we've done for them," says Christine Zahn, owner of Tempe Bowl, a throwback mom-and-pop business that has been in her family since 1968. "They want to help us out any way they can. I've got a lot of respect for them."

Zahn says that the business's bowling clientele has dropped considerably over the last couple of years, a development that she blames on the City of Tempe. The city has declared Tempe Bowl's neighborhood--Apache east of Rural--an urban redevelopment zone, and Zahn contends that the city's strategy has been to let the area fall into such disrepair that property values will plummet and developers can swarm in and make a killing. If the prices aren't low enough to suit developers, so the theory goes, the city can condemn a piece of property and basically achieve the same aim.

Zahn argues that the city's neglect of the area is demonstrated by a blatant lack of police protection, and poor enforcement of codes--resulting in substandard buildings, open sewers, and other problems. In desperation, she's filed an inverse condemnation suit against the city, seeking compensation for the damage she believes has been done to her business.

"We're in the fight for our life with the City of Tempe," she says. "We've had to fight to get them to clean things up. Some cleanup has occurred, but not without screaming from businesses here."

"It was either terribly negligent or deliberate," says Doug Zimmerman, Zahn's attorney, of the city's conduct. "But we think it was with the idea of driving down property values."

Tempe City Attorney Brad Woodford declined to comment on the suit, except to say, "We don't think it has any merit."

Zahn sees a connection between what she views as the city's abandonment of Apache and the loss of her loyal bowling clientele. She says that many longtime bowlers no longer want to venture to an area overrun by rampant crime and property deterioration. So now she finds herself unable to pay her mortgage and hoping to hang on while the courts survey the wreckage. Zahn's claim against the city was filed in bankruptcy court, with the aim of receiving her equity interest in the property. The city has filed a motion for dismissal. So far nothing has been decided.

Had the bowling alley suffered through such dire financial circumstances two years ago, a small number of loyalists would have mourned the potential loss of a piece of Tempe history. But over the last year, Tempe Bowl has become more than that. It's emerged as an improbable but important part of the local music scene.

Zahn stumbled into the music biz rather inadvertently last fall when her business's neighbor, the Electric Ballroom shut its doors. The Ballroom had scheduled a Saturday night hard-rock show featuring such bands as Windigo and Freudian Slip, and when the club closed with only a few days warning, there was no place to move the show. Zahn stepped in and offered to hold it at Tempe Bowl.

The gig's resulting success (if you don't count Windigo's Matt Strangewayes leading the crowd on a slippery rampage through a bowling lane) encouraged Zahn to make live music an ongoing part of the Tempe Bowl experience. The result was the Valley's most surreal juxtaposition of entertainment, a place where you could find avid bowlers throwing strikes a few feet away from a moshing Unruh crowd.

At the time that Tempe Bowl became a live music venue, the Valley was conspicuously short of viable underground rock options. The Nile Theater had temporarily shut down and Electric Ballroom was history. Aside from Boston's, there weren't many places that consistently catered to underground rock. Until The Heat opened in late July, Tempe Bowl was arguably the best all-ages, punk-rock option in the Valley. Some would argue that it still is.

When the bowling alley moved into the music realm last year, Zahn excitedly suggested that the change could help bring a new crowd to her business. The strategy has worked, but it hasn't been enough to stem the tide of bowlers away from the locale. So the local punk scene decided to mobilize on behalf of Zahn's business. On November 6 and 7, Tempe Bowl hosted two benefit shows, featuring 11 bands in all, including Impossible Ones, 3 Out of 4, Camera Obscura, Shoeless Joe, 5 Speed, and Sawed Off Chicken.

Even Zahn seems unsure whether such efforts will be enough to save her beloved bowling alley, but if nothing else, this 48-year-old businesswoman has gained considerable appreciation for the people who make punk music.

"People look down their noses at these kids, but they've been great," she says. "They've done a lot more than the City of Tempe has ever done for us."

For his part, Zimmerman expresses utter disgust with the city's handling of the situation. "This may be constitutional, and I believe in the Constitution, but you've got to stretch the Constitution to conduct an urban redevelopment zone the way some of these cities are doing it."

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