Town Rallies for a Bowling Alley: A Community’s Cry for Fun and One Man’s Plan to Revitalize Downtown Middlebury

By SADIE HOUSBERG

Sadie Housberg
Scott Gemignani, owner of Tinker and Smithy game store, hopes to build a bowling alley where Ben Franklin’s used to stand.

MIDDLEBURY – “The idea is this: get the building. Gut the thing. Because it’s hot garbage inside,” said Scott Gemignani, owner of Tinker and Smithy Game Store. Gemignani explained his plan to bring new life to downtown Middlebury as he set up shop for the day, pausing to gesticulate excitedly. His plan includes the construction of a classic, all-ages source of fun – a bowling alley – in the previous home of the Ben Franklin store.

Front Porch Forum (FPF), a free online platform aimed at building community within Vermont neighborhoods, has become home to  the town’s growing bowling alley brainstorm. “Wondering if anyone is interested in opening a bowling alley in Middlebury?!” wrote Lerin Peters, one FPF “neighbor” in late February, sparking a flood of excited posts echoing this sentiment.

“I’d welcome this or any space that, as my neighbor pointed out “appeals to all ages, professions, genders & skill sets/talents” – year round to boot,” said Erin Davis, producer and Middlebury College instructor, in a post on FPF on Feb. 24.

Scott Gemignani has an action plan. He wants to be the one to bring a bowling alley to Middlebury – but not just any bowling alley. The owner of Tinker and Smithy Game store has much more ambitious goals to create a space where community members and families can gather recreationally, high schoolers can have their first jobs and where even college students can find some fun off the hill after 5 p.m.

In a post on FPF responding to the community discussion, Gemignani wrote: “I’ve heard a number of times that folks would like to have a bowling alley, some night-life, something TO DO in Middlebury after the shops close. Well, I have a plan to accomplish all these wishes.”

In keeping with the experiential and diversified business model he operates at Tinker and Smithy, Gemignani’s plan would include a retro arcade, a space for community classes and after-school programming – including an offer to partner with the local teen center, a few food options done right, and of course a one- or two-lane bowling alley. Not to be forgotten, if he is able to purchase the building, he hopes to move his current toy and game store operation to the other side of the street as well.

Gemignani grew up in Bristol, Vermont, and returned to the state when he had finished “running around,” as well as receiving his college degree. During the 80s and 90s, he explained, Middlebury was the economic hub for his town and other surrounding communities. That was before the Internet. When Gemignani came home, he noticed things were beginning to change.

“As I got involved in my kids and their community, their parents and their friends, and the schools, I noticed that we were having kind of this crisis of programming for kids,” he explained. “Being a daycare provider, I noticed that there were no options for people to bring their children in the local area.”

According to Gemignani, services for families are “next to nothing.” Corey Hendrickson, photographer, videographer and longtime resident of Middlebury concurred.

“When you have kids you kind of get silo-ed,” Hendrickson explained. “To have a place where kids can be loud and physical would be great. There’s crossover appeal too because it’s not just fun for that age group but I think I could see students there.”

“I’m also a dad,” Hendrickson elaborated. “I’ve got two small kids. The Town Hall Theater is amazing, the Marquis is amazing, however there’s still a pretty big need for family friendly activities during,  like, the 11 months of winter every year.”

Hendrickson, like many other parents in town, is eager to see spaces where intergenerational gatherings can take place, where kids can let loose and people can be social after the sun goes down. “I’m an enthusiastic advocate,” he said, and is more than willing to do what he can to propel a project to create a bowling alley along. As of now, he explained, there is a void that needs to be filled – one that can’t be sustained in the long term by what he terms “guerilla parenting spots” for congregating.

“If everyone kind of contributes a little bit of time and their own skill set, I feel optimistic that we could figure something out,” Hendrickson continued, encouraged by the momentum he sees building on FPF.

Admittedly, the renovations and construction at Ben Franklin would take a serious financial contribution. According to Gemignani, the building hasn’t been updated in years; to gut and remodel the basement and first floor represents a considerable undertaking.

“I would eventually hope that the community would help to support the building because the amount of money that the building requires is substantial,” he said. But for Gemignani and many residents, the stakes are high enough to make this endeavor an exciting prospect.

“[In] this town, like a lot of America right now, there’s wealth disparity,” said Gemignani, bringing up the importance of an affordable and public gathering place in rural communities. “There are kids at the grade school where their parents are not actually washing their clothes because the water bill is too high. You have single parents, single mothers, single fathers or even couples that are making tough decisions– like do we eat tonight or do we pay heat.”

So, the official mission, Gemignani said, is “to build community and celebrate diversity and ensure that everyone can come in here and that this is a community space.”

Gemignani is looking for investors, donors and community support to secure the funding for what he believes to be a “site with guaranteed income built-in.” For more information or to contact Gemignani, email scottgemignani@gmail.com or make a visit to the local game store.

Courtesy Photo
Community members gather to play board games at Tinker and Smithy.

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