Scott Koecheler, owner of Midway Pro Bowl, knew the day was coming.
He’d seen the drawings, placing the north end of a brand-new professional soccer stadium on property where his bowling alley sits. Ever since Minnesota United and the city of St. Paul expressed a desire to build a stadium on the old “Bus Barn” site in St. Paul’s Midway area, Koecheler said he knew the alley’s days were numbered.
He just thought he had more time.
“Progress,” said Koecheler, who has owned the basement bowling alley for 34 of its 57 years. “That’s the way it’s referred to — progress.”
The owner of Midway Shopping Center, Rick Birdoff of RK Midway, last week informed Koecheler and several other tenants that they have 90 days to vacate the property. After months of negotiation among city, state and team officials, Birdoff reached an agreement with Bill McGuire, owner of the Minnesota United professional soccer team, clearing the way to proceed on a $200 million, privately financed stadium.
Koecheler said he knew about the provision in his lease allowing the property owner to give him 90 days to vacate. But, after 34 years in business — hosting bowling leagues, celebrations and fundraisers — he said he didn’t expect to get it so soon.
“More time would have been nice,” he said; he hoped he would have until spring. Receiving the notice now kills fall leagues and the revenue that comes from 950 to 1,000 regular bowlers. Koecheler said he has until Nov. 15 to close, but he plans to be out by Oct. 1.
“We have to liquidate everything,” he said, noting that much of his equipment cannot be moved.
Midway Shopping Center and the Bus Barn site, owned by the Metropolitan Council, have for many months been part of a redevelopment vision that would transform a 35-acre “super block” bordered by University Avenue to the north, Interstate 94 to the south, Snelling Avenue to the west and Pascal Street to the east into a new commercial and entertainment district. The 20,000-seat stadium would be the catalyst, city officials have said.
While most of the stadium will be on the Met Council property, part of it was slated to be built on Midway Shopping Center land just to the north. That required an agreement between the team and Birdoff. That agreement came last week, McGuire confirmed Friday. The new stadium is expected to open in spring 2019 and for that to happen, the entire stadium site needs to be cleared.
“As part of moving the project forward on the established time frames, it was necessary to take these next steps. And they couldn’t be done until agreements were reached with the landholder,” McGuire said.
‘Staple of St. Paul’
For Koecheler, his 15 employees and the people who’ve turned a bowling alley into a neighborhood fixture, the news is bittersweet.
Midway Pro Bowl has been used by many organizations to raise money and host celebrations. It’s a neighborhood gathering place. It hosts a bowling league for people with disabilities on Saturdays. About 15 years ago, Koecheler began hosting Christmas celebrations for his large extended family. There were 84 there last Christmas, he said.
Angel Branch, who manages the Pearle Vision next door, which also must move, has known Koecheler for 15 years.
“I told him, this is the first place I ever bowled, the first place I had a drink, the first place I fell in love,” she said. “I feel like it’s a staple of St. Paul.”
Powell Thornton was waiting for a lesson Thursday. While he does his league bowling elsewhere, Midway Pro Bowl is where he hones his game. He praised Koecheler as “a pillar of the community, with customer service that’s beyond belief.”
Robert Blake stood outside the doors, smoking a cigarette and remembering the many tournaments he’s bowled there.
‘Good people, good place’
“These are good people. This has been a good place,” he said. “This has been home to social events that people look forward to.”
Mary Lau owns the Peking Garden restaurant at the east end of the shopping mall. She once had to move from near the University of Minnesota to make way for TCF Bank Stadium. But, she said, an eight-year lease and no immediate plans to redevelop her side of Midway Shopping Center have her feeling safe — for now.
“I felt very bad for Scott. We’re going to miss him,” she said. “In St. Paul, you say ‘Midway Bowling,’ and everybody knows where it is.”
Koecheler, who said he and his partner have received some compensation from RK Midway and are working to help employees find new jobs, is planning a goodbye party Sept. 15. He’s still working on details, he said, but “the bar will be open until we run out of liquor.”