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Countryside Lanes taking on a luster under new regime

By PHIL GULICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Keith Nichols is so into his new job as general manager of Countryside Lanes that he even sleeps there.

"Why not?" Nichols asked. "There is plenty of room, I'm single, I put in long hours and this is my first job as a real GM, so why not?"

Nichols, a boyish-looking 37, grew up running the 16-lane center his father owned in Toronto, Ohio. He quickly grasped the aspects of the industry, developed a knack for promoting, marketing and personnel management, and learned his craft the honest way -- from behind the pinsetters to the front desk.

"I spend 16- to 18-hour days here at Countryside," Nichols said with a laugh. "I told Mr. Henson (Dana Henson, director of operations for Socia Enterprises, which owns the center) when he hired me that I would accomplish in three months what would normally take six. I'm confident in my own abilities that this can be done."

In barely three months, Nichols is nearing his goal.

Countryside Lanes was built in 1986, a showcase center smack in the middle of golf and tennis country, and it may have been snake-bitten from the very start. The concrete slab had just cured when a downpour caused a sizable corner of it to collapse into a mini-sinkhole. That threw construction months behind, and prospective leagues had to bowl at other centers.

Finally, the center opened late in 1987 with a full house and high expectations. However, things went downhill from there, finally ending in bankruptcy and receivership three years ago, a victim of poor management, neglect and a disappearing clientele.

Socia Enterprises of Lakeland, owned by real estate developer and country club owner Clarence J. "Bud" Socia, bought the center with a $1.2-million bid on the steps of the Clearwater Courthouse last April and began the resurrection. Socia Enterprises also owns Orange Bowl in Lakeland.

"We could see right off that the center was a diamond in the rough," Henson recalled. "We liked the property, the demographics, and we knew bowlers would come back if we promised improvements and, more importantly, kept those promises."

Henson has a blueprint that calls for more than $2.5-million in renovations. New scorers, pinsetters, ball returns, kids bumpers and masking units have been or will be installed. A new air-conditioning system went in last week. A bright new recreation room with new billiards tables and gaming machines has been attracting good crowds. The bar now sports a comfortable, warm ambience and a new color scheme. New carpeting throughout and brighter lighting have chased away the dingy look.

"We had about 800 bowlers when we took over, and I expect 2,500 when the winter season opens in August," Nichols said. "I learned from day one that you need three things to run a good operation: a clean environment, a good house shot and great customer service. I intend to provide all of those and more.

"Our bowlers have been great, putting up with all the construction going on around them and still coming back." Henson laughed was asked how he found Nichols for the job.

"I worked for Harry O'Neale Jr., head of the PBA Southern Region, as his PR director for a few years," Henson recalled, "and Keith is a veteran regional competitor. I had gone through a couple of GMs at Countryside and I was looking for a stronger manager when Harry mentioned Keith. We talked, I was impressed and I hired him."

With a 100 percent improvement, nobody is sleeping on the job at the new Countryside Lanes.

HIGH ENTHUSIASM: The Junior Scratch Classic League at Countryside Lanes, started by Bill and Cheryl Bedford, drew more than 70 young bowlers and keeps adding more.

"We're just into our first weeks, and already we're attracting more teams," said Bill.

Team Twenty Three is the current leader with a 14-2 match-play record. Scoring is based on percentage of wins to losses, not total points. Twenty Three is led by Raymond Arrazcaeta with a league-leading 223 average, with teammates Tanya Veitch at 165 and Dana Ibbitson at 138.

High scorers so far are Cliff Barnes with a 732 series, Billy Kitchens with a 287 game, Kelly Fecke with a 246 game and 627 series, and Kelli McManus with a 656 series. The league competes every Wednesday night.

TERRY A WINNER: St. Petersburg's Norm Terry won his second NABI title and $300 last Sunday at AMF Clearwater Lanes, defeating St. Petersburg's Bill Heym 193-187. Dunedin's Fred Heiferman was third, followed by Clearwater's Dave Rissman and Palm Harbor's Chava Gonzalez.

Steve Rossette defeated Kent Worrall 233-181 to win the Platinum Division title and $425. Patrick Pruitt was third, Dave Cavey fourth and Gene Piaskowski fifth. All are from St. Petersburg except Piaskowski, who is from Tampa.

Rainbow Lanes will host the NABI competitors on June 17-18 with regular and Platinum Division events.

AROUND THE LANES: There were no leader changes in the WIBC Championship Tournament at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev., or at the ABC National Championships at the Albuquerque (N.M.) Convention Center. Three more 300 games were rolled at the ABC event, bringing the total to 30.

-- Phil Gulick can be reached at Xerxes6@aol.com or Xerxes6@earthlink.net

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