Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 6, 2017

A bowling alley as catalyst for ‘midTown’

When you walk into SpareTime, it hits you immediately that the Holiday Bowl is a thing of the past. - Photographs provided

The Holiday Bowl, in all its decaying glory, sat in the middle of an equally run-down part of Brainerd for the past 30 years.

It had its regular leagues, its faithful rock star wannabes hanging out at the karaoke bar. With other alleys in East Ridge and North Georgia going out of business, it seemed to be good business just to exist.

But Holiday Bowl didn’t last, ceasing to exist earlier in 2016. After closing its doors briefly this summer, it re-opened in October as SpareTime, something totally different from anything Chattanooga has ever seen.

The word is still just getting out.

“Chattanooga has no idea what it has here,” says Dewayne Gass, a longtime Chattanooga developer. “What we’ve done here is absolute upscale, the top of the top.”

Spare Time Entertainment was purchased by a privately-owned Northeastern-based company several years ago at the same time Hixson’s Holiday Bowl was bought. Now, the two venues have been transformed.

A half-million dollars was sunk into the Hixson SpareTime to make it a state-of-the-art lanes. Upwards of five million dollars was spent on the aging Brainerd Road Holiday Bowl building to transform it into something, as Gass says, that the city has never seen before.

“They operated the two (Holiday Bowls) for a number of years until they decided what to do with them,” Gass explains. “They put the SpareTime brand on them only after they were renovated to their satisfaction.”

Bowling you over

A 100-day shakedown just completed, the refurbished (excuse me, retrofitted) Brainerd facility still has plenty of lanes to accommodate leagues, to be sure.

But when you walk inside the place, the first thing you see is a snazzy, upscale bar. The spacious gathering place separates the conventional bowling from two other sections. On one end, there are a private series of lanes that would accommodate a birthday party or fraternity, adjacent to a spectacular VIP room that has its own bar, tables, lanes and, above all, luxury.

On the opposite end of the building, a large space that the dark, stark karaoke bar once occupied, is now the biggest, most elaborate game room this side of Dave and Buster’s. In fact, a downsized version of D&B’s three-ring circus is exactly what the designers have in mind.

“If you want to have just a party, you can do that,” Gass points out, having to shout over the noise of a New Year’s Eve crowd. “If you want to go bowling to be a part of it, you can do that. If you want to have laser tag or a bunch of games, you can do that.”

Gass’ hands-on experience with Brainerd goes all the way back to the first Haunted House at Sir Goony’s some 20 years ago. This year, for the first time since he got that project off the ground, he was not a part of it.

“I gave up everything else for this,” he adds, with a smile. “The company sent me down to Birmingham to see what they’ve done down there, and I was sold.”

What they’d done, specifically, is retrofit an existing space, the way they’d done throughout the Northeast before branching out in the Carolinas and to Alabama. The amount invested varied, of course, but it was usually millions. But now the company is taking the next step; going up in Greenville, South Carolina, a SpareTime that they are custom building from the ground up.

Its price tag: a cool $14 million.

But until that space-age facility is open for business, the SpareTime on Brainerd Road stands as the newest showplace of the ambitious corporation.

‘Heart of midTown’

But why, you ask, spend $5 million on a building located next to a closed optical center and an ancient car wash? A building that has one access road that looks like something from World War II-era France. A building located next to the skeleton of a once-vibrant mall that had turned into, in large part, a ghost town.

“This place,” says Ryan Dean, SpareTime entertainment manager, ‘is the heart of midTown.”

midTown. A simple enough word, but alien to residents of Chattanooga. Brainerd is Brainerd, they say, just like Red Bank is Red Bank, Tyner is Tyner and Ridgeside is an elitist gated community that blocked off city streets just because they could.

But I digress.

The midTown plan is as ambitious a project as anyone has ever devised for the concrete sprawl that is Brainerd Road and its adjoining arteries. Brainerd Road, at first glance, would seem so hopelessly beyond help that even the churches go out of business.

Once you go past the walled-off opulence that is the McCallie School and pop out the other side of the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, you find yourself in the first neighborhood of Brainerd/midTown, Olde Town.

Once upon a time, the city’s best (only) comedy club called this block home, but it has departed along with a half-dozen other businesses. Before that, Chattanooga’s best hamburger ever came out of a small storefront here called Leonard’s. Half a block down, a prestigious home of the arts for years, the Little Theater, once was part of this neighborhood as well.

Across the street, what was once a wonderful looking turn-of-the-century service station is now a nail salon.

When you come upon the major intersection, you see signs of life: a couple of pharmacies, a new mega service station (adjacent to an even newer liquor store!), a beauty boutique, a car parts place.

But long gone from the corner of Brainerd Road and Germantown was the home office of Olan Mills, once one of the largest photography concerns in the Southeast. Now the only thing that keeps its brand name from being forgotten is its distinctive logo on so many photos of people on the obituary page.

Go a little farther down, past the kidney dialysis place that used to be a Food Lion, you see the big open lot that was once home to Ed Smith’s barbecue place – the best in town, bar none. When Smith, a former NFL player, closed it, the building was bulldozed. Nearly two decades later, that lot is only home to used cars dropped off by neighborhood residents and the occasional gypsy marketer.

 Just past that is a custom car lot in a unique building that was once home to the area’s most popular ice cream joint, Kay’s Kastle.

Two churches, or what were once churches, are on the left. Between them is an eight-lane parkway that leads to what used to be Brainerd Junior High. Back around that same road, unbelievably, is an actual observatory that has been part of the neighborhood since 1938. Aspect of Brainerd marked it as a very special neighborhood.

There are signs of development, if not growth, as you continue town the main drag. A new Burger King thrives right across the street from the McDonald’s, a made-to-order fast food place does a booming business on a space once occupied by the old Burger King.

Past the SpareTime building, the occupied spaces and the vacant spaces seem to be about equal, but then you come upon what have been, until now, Brainerd’s principal destinations the last two decades: Bud’s, a venerable sports bar with a zillion TVs, bigger and busier than ever since it took over the old Red Lobster and, on the other side of the street, in the old Shoney’s, is the newly remodeled Hooters.

Make no mistake. For all its vacant storefronts, Brainerd is nowhere near dead.

Every neighborhood in America has felt the same squeeze on its small businesses. And now, perhaps, it isn’t even dying any more. The once nearly abandoned Eastgate Mall, doomed once Hamilton Place popped up with more space, more stores and easier access, has survived thanks to several unconventional occupants, like a cowboy bar and a day care center. But just past the Eastgate parking lot, you see what midTown is hoping to one day become.

“It’s a resurrection,” Gass says. “They are putting $40 million into the office center next to Eastgate.”

The complex, whose centerpiece is the Uptain Building, will be undergoing a facelift for the next few years. Next to it, the long-awaited Brainerd branch of the public library has opened its doors, occupying a huge space that once housed the mail-routing center. And, weekly, more and more development comes to light.

“I’ve attended a lot of these monthly meetings,” Gass points out. “It really opens your eyes.”

midTown, which even has its own web site now, also has a mission statement:

Grassroots midTown is a nonprofit organization committed to economic, community and workforce development in the midTown area, focusing on promoting the diversity of the retail, recreation, dining, cultural, and educational opportunities in the community.

Grassroots midTown was established in 2015 to cultivate the growth and advocate economic development in midTown. The midTown area begins at Missionary Ridge and follows the Brainerd Road and Lee Highway corridor to Hwy 153, including neighborhoods and businesses to I-24, I-75, and Shallowford Road boundaries.

Grassroots midTown works in partnership with area businesses, the midTown Council of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, realtors, city officials and professionals invested in the economic growth and renewal of the midTown area. We encourage a vibrant business community and cultivate a dynamic workforce to attract new business and support existing businesses in midTown.

But the actual change in name, more than the physical change, is what has drawn the most resistance. midTown, for whatever reason – tradition, distrust – is a name that many longtime Brainerd residents are loath to adopt. Why change? Is the gist of their argument, while the other side of the debate points out bluntly that Brainerd as a destination has some baggage attached. By any name, it is a project moving forward.

But the name debate is one that Gass will not get in the middle of.

“Call it whatever you want,” he said. “The fact of the matter is this: if you push a pin in the middle of a map of Chattanooga, it will be stuck in Brainerd.”

Grassroots midTown is a non-profit partnership meeting the first Wednesday of each month to report on the ongoing developments.

Gass, who travels between the local SpareTime centers, unsurprisingly gets defensive when asked about security issues. It’s a valid concern; shots were fired at the nearby Wal-Mart in Brainerd, and that store has already taken the extreme step of closing each night at midnight to discourage gang activity in the parking lot or in the store.

“Look, crime is everywhere,” Gass says. “Today it’s Wal-Mart. Last week, it was Hamilton Place. Two years ago, no one would go to Coolidge Park because they were afraid.

“We run a tight ship here. We want people to have fun, but we will not tolerate certain things,” he continues. “We post our dos and don’t right out front on the door. We make it clear what we expect.”

It takes almost a long to read those “dos and don’ts” as it takes to bowl a game. But the rules make it resoundingly clear that the days parents drop their kids off with a pocket full of quarters is over. SpareTime is no babysitter.