COVID-19-induced revenue losses and a staffing shortage have forced forced Northfield business owners Terry and Julie Heilman to close the iconic Jesse James Lanes at least indefinitely. The bowling alley will close June 1.
Just down the road, Faribowl/Bashers Sports Grill in Faribault is experiencing heavy traffic after months of COVID-related government restrictions.
‘Just not happening’
In a message posted last week to the Northfield Happenings website, the Heilmans announced the pending closure last week. They said the closure was necessary after the onset COVID-19, when the bowling alley was forced to close for five months and then could operate at only 25% capacity after reopening. They also said they’re having difficulty finding workers and the hiring due to unemployment benefits and stimulus checks that potential applicants were receiving is nearly impossible.
Jesse James Lanes is a 16-lane center that hosts league bowling. The facility includes “Rock and Bowl” events and banquets. The alley has earned a reputation as being well-maintained and has hosted several state-level events. For 45 years, it’s been a place for locals to meet. To the Heilmans, it’s where they’ve built lasting relationships with customers.
“We lost a lot of teams last fall and several weeks of our league season,” they wrote. “We lost all of our group events, schools, churches, colleges, companies, birthdays, weddings, reunions, fundraisers, etc., and there’s no indication as to when they will return.
“We were hoping things would have been back to normal by now but it’s just not happening. It’s still going to take a while for people to feel comfortable going out in public and coming in close contact with one another even after restrictions are lifted.”
The Heilmans predicted their business “will be one of the last to recover” from the pandemic due to the nature of their work.
“It is different than most because in that human contact is encouraged,” they said of bowling. “The whole idea is to get people together to socialize, have fun, meet people, make friends and network.”
Business remains strong
Faribowl Manager Donnie Clayton said his business is “doing really wonderful,” with employees returning to work and on-site volleyball games once again taking place. He noticed the uptick began shortly after the end of the second state shutdown in January, with traffic picking up each week. The bowling alley’s limited capacity, currently 50% in the bowling alley and 75% at Bashers, returns to 100% later this month.
One advantage Faribowl has over Jesse James Lane is its six volleyball courts and leagues Tuesday through Thursday, said Clayton. Bashers will be able to seat approximately 80 people once indoor gathering regulations end.
Clayton anticipates next fall will bring a surge of bowlers anxious to return to the sport after what amounts to an entire winter off. Several teams have already contacted him about rejoining the league. He expects the restaurant will remain busy this summer while bowling continues lags behind due to the sport’s status as a winter activity.
Still, Clayton said he disagreed with the state’s ruling that capacity limits at bowling alleys be even lower than restaurants because of the larger size of Faribowl. He said employees laid off following the onset of the pandemic opted to return to work after going “stir-crazy” at home while receiving public benefits.