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Orange County

Fountain Valley in the Fast Lane?

Sports: By hosting the U.S. Open of Bowling, the city raises its profile--and some extra money.

December 07, 2001|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, the 5,000 bowlers and their entourages may not be the biggest spenders in sports. And no one will ever mistake the U.S. Open of Bowling for the World Series.

But in Fountain Valley, the tournament has rolled into town with a big-league jolt of civic pride.

"Back in the '80s, we used to have the Gordon-Bennett [hot-air] balloon race," said Fountain Valley Councilman John Collins. "But this is bigger than that. It's a positive image builder."

The tournament, which began Saturday and runs through Sunday at the 27-year-old Fountain Bowl bowling alley, has been so well received by tour officials that it might come back next year. And the year after, even.

The tavern at the bowling alley has been jammed. Business at the snack shop has been brisk. And the owner of Fountain Bowl is feeling like some kingpin working on a perfect game.

Still, for other business owners in this small community, it isn't exactly like the Super Bowl has blasted into town. Lamppost Pizza, which sits less than 100 yards from the bowling center, was almost deserted at lunch hour recently. Fountain Valley's hotels were showing only modest occupancy increases.

"One of the drawbacks is we really don't have a major hotel," lamented George Blanc, incoming chairman of the Fountain Valley Chamber of Commerce. "There's a few [hotels], but we're sending people to Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach."

Many of the bowlers who are calling Fountain Valley their temporary home are on tight budgets. Tour rookie Walt Schaub of Chicago, who didn't make it out of the qualifying rounds and was leaving town today, split a $35 room with another competitor at the Courtyard by Marriott, one of Fountain Valley's three hotels.

"I've been at tournaments where you have to spend a hundred dollars a night," Schaub said. "This is great."

The U.S. Open of Bowling landed in Orange County rather than Las Vegas, Dallas or Tulsa, Okla.--among the other locations considered--because of the weather, Disneyland and, yes, even the Lakers. Some of the tour's top bowlers attended the Lakers-Dallas Mavericks game Wednesday night at Staples Center.

Fountain Valley also got the nod because Dave Osborn, the owner of Fountain Bowl, had the good fortune of having just spent $1.5 million to modernize his 60-lane facility as tournament officials were eyeing California as a venue. In recent years, the tournament has been held in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Hartford, Conn., and Troy, Mich.

"I'll be honest with you: I was concerned about our lack of hotel space," said Osborn, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce. "I was kind of surprised we got the tournament."

Now that he's had a taste of the big time, Osborn doesn't want to give it up. He is negotiating with tour officials for a two-year contract extension.

Is it possible that Fountain Valley could become the bowling capital of the world?

"There are worse things to be known for," said Councilman Collins, who described himself as a mediocre bowler at best. "It's not like you're going to change the city logo over to a bowling ball or anything. But we'd be fine with that title."

Collins said Fountain Valley, with its 55,000 residents, probably felt like home to some of the visitors from the Midwest.

"This is not the glamour and glitz of Hollywood here," he said. "This community of 9.75 square miles could probably be lifted up and put in Iowa or Indiana and fit right in. We have churches, libraries and other basic community-type things like baseball fields."

But there are differences. Some of the out-of-staters were caught off guard by the "No Smoking" signs in bars and restaurants. And they were bemused by the thicket of Starbucks and similar coffeehouses throughout town.

For Evan Tolson, a 19-year-old aspiring pro bowler from Victorville, Fountain Valley was the center of the universe Thursday afternoon.

"This is awesome," said Tolson, watching Walter Ray Williams Jr.--his idol, he said--roll strike after strike. "I'm only 60 miles from here. You can't pass up an opportunity like this."

And, apparently, neither can the Professional Bowlers Assn. Beth Marshall, a tour spokeswoman, said there was a good chance the event will be back.

"This is the kind of city we want to be in," she said. "It's a great destination. It's sunny, warm. In December it's a nice place for our people to come play. And it's a big media market."

On Sunday morning, Fountain Valley will make its national television debut. The bowling finals are scheduled for 10 a.m. on ESPN.

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