Goodbye, Bowlway Lanes? Elgin building could become events space

After 79 years as a bowling alley, including more than three decades of ownership by the Grocke brothers, the Bowlway Lanes in Elgin is on track to become a banquets and events space.

Bill Grocke, 77, said he and his brothers Norman Grocke, 76, and Greg Grocke, 63 - who have been interested in selling the building for about three years because of declining business, increasing property taxes and their advancing ages - have found a prospective buyer with "a beautiful plan."

"It was time," he said. "It will be a really nice improvement."

The 14,000-square-foot building at 810 Villa St. would be renovated to host events with capacity for 368 people, including staff members. The parking lot would be reconstructed for 78 spaces, and the new owner would lease 20 more spaces from VNA Health Care across the street, where employees and service providers would park.

The plan got the thumbs-up Monday night from the city's planning and zoning commission and will need approval by the city council. If all goes well, the sale should be finalized in late July, Grocke said.

The zoning application was submitted by Pedro Leguizamo and 808 Villa St. Trust. Leguizamo didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Bowlway Lanes closed in March after the stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been difficult to continue operating even when restrictions lift, Bill Grocke said.

"A few of the big ones (bowling alleys) will go on, but the smaller ones will have an incredibly hard time," he said. "In the restaurant business you can space people out, but it's almost impossible to separate people (in bowling)."

Bowlway Lanes opened in 1941 as a very modern bowling alley at the time, Bill Grocke said.

"It was a clear-span building. There were no poles or columns blocking anything," he said. There is also a bar area and video gambling machines in a separate room.

Bill Grocke, who lives in Elgin, and his brothers, who live in Elgin Township, purchased the building in 1984, when there were about 650 bowling centers in Illinois. About 270 bowling centers remain today, but some are expected to close in the wake of the pandemic, said Bill Duff, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the Bowling Proprietors Association.

There were four bowling alleys in Elgin in the 1980s, but two have closed. The other one is Elgin Lanes.

"Bowling has died like all other sports. Kids don't do it, adults don't do it," Bill Grocke said. "We held fundraisers (for local organizations) and people would say, 'I love to bowl, it's so much fun,' but we wouldn't see them again."

Bill Grocke said he and his brothers have always been close. They bowled as youths and carried averages of more than 200 at their peak, and Norm Grocke was a professional bowler for several years, he said.

The brothers connected with the prospective buyer via a broker and there was a 10-month process to get the zoning petition before city's planning and zoning commission, Bill Grocke said.

Some regulars at Bowlway Lanes had been coming for more than 30 years and some passed on their interest to their grandkids, Bill Grocke said.

"We'll miss all the very nice people we met and became friends with, but I won't miss the business," he said. "It was time. When you're trying to stay alive (as a business), it's not worth it."

  The Grocke brothers, owners of Bowlway Lanes at 810 Villa St. in Elgin, have plans to sell it to a buyer who wants to turn it into a banquets and events space. Rick West/
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