By Brenden West Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON – A number of things lead people through the doors of the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce. For all the common reasons — economic development, tourism, event planning among them — Becky Graves claims no expertise.
Graves knows bowling, a sport she’s played for the better part of 33 years. That love of pins and lanes led to a conversation with Chamber President Nathan Sondgeroth last May.
She has long thought about what hosting the Iowa Women’s State Bowling Tournament — a 14-week competition that draws women by the thousands — would mean for the local community. Last spring, a change in the state association’s hosting policies made what was only imaginable possible again.
“In a way, it was like the blind leading the blind,” Graves said. “I hadn’t attempted anything like this before.”
Months later, the rest of the state got a taste of the Gateway area’s passion for bowling, leading to the kind of news that creates pandemonium for local enthusiasts. After a nine-month bid process, Clinton and Camanche were selected to host the 2016 Iowa State United States Bowling Congress Women’s Bowling Association (ISUSBCWBA) state tournament.
Only then did Graves believe that passion could come to the Gateway area.
60 years in the making
Clinton last hosted the tournament in 1951, back when pin-setting was a manual operation. The sport has maintained a strong local contingent, with women’s bowling associations in both Clinton and Camanche. But local lanes always seemed a step behind rule changes.
For Cindy Garvey, owner of Camanche’s Imperial Lanes, it’s literally been a lifetime since the major bowling event came to Clinton County. Since she was old enough to hold a ball, Garvey has loved to bowl. It’s taken up a bulk of her last 40 years, and Imperial Lanes is a family business.
“I’ve been raised bowling,” said Garvey, adding that her sister is a professional bowler and her children bowl on the junior level. “This is what we do. It’s our life.”
The association’s state meeting takes place every March. For years, regulations narrowed the state tournament to a handful of cities. They required single venue bids with 32 lanes, or dual-venue bids with 24 and 16 lanes. It ruled out a combined bid from Plaza Bowl (Clinton) and Imperial Lanes (Camanche), which have 20 and 12 lanes, respectively.
Charla Green, manager of the state association, said numbers have steadily dropped over the years. One of the reasons for loosening host requirements was to inject enthusiasm in statewide bowlers with more potential locations.
“It gives the bowlers more choices,” Green said. “Clinton and Camanche jumped right in. They definitely grabbed the bull by the horns.”
When this news reached the Clinton and Camanche Women’s Bowling Associations, Garvey and Graves described enthusiastic talks for getting the bid combined with a sense of the unknown. With six decades separating the region from its last state tournament, they found no one locally to steer them through the bid war.
“We’ve never attempted anything like this before — never had the option,” Graves said. “We’ve never had the option and none of us really knew what we were doing. We just jumped in with both feet.”
After they felt they gathered enough information, Graves took what she had through the Chamber doors, where she met Sondgeroth and Clinton Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Carrie Donaire.
Up the Chamber’s Alley
Sondgeroth’s knowledge of bowling pales in comparison to Graves and Garvey.
“All we wanted to do was provide back end support and some expertise to make sure their story of this rich history gets told,” he said. “They came to us and said, look, we want to do this. Becky had a dream to bring this here and she rallied our local organizations.”
When Graves took her idea to him 10 months ago, she said the Chamber president was enthusiastic about the prospect.
“I had told Nathan, ‘It’s my first year as my bowling association’s manager... I’m too stupid to know we can’t do this,’” Graves said. “He said, ‘It’s my first year on the Chamber — I’m too stupid to know I can’t, too.’”
Alongside Donaire, Sondgeroth supplemented Clinton and Camanche bowlers with organization and proper planning.
“Neither Clinton nor Camanche have done this themselves, so only by working together could this objective be achieved,” Sondgeroth said.
Four cities submitted bids by the July 2013 deadline: Des Moines, Mason City, Waterloo and Clinton-Camanche. Mason City (another new contender with the rule change) withdrew its bid after a fire destroyed part of its facility. By fall, the field was down to Clinton-Camanche and Waterloo.
The communities had roughly four months to prepare final presentations for the March 2014 annual meeting.
“The best way to tell the story was to show the state association that it’s basically been a lifetime since we had this,” Donaire said. “As we learned more about how ingrained the sport and culture of bowling is in people’s families, it really just helped us tell this interesting story of how it’s been a lifetimes since we hosted the tournament.”
Combined with the Chamber, local bowling associations came up with the slogan, “Clinton-Camanche: We’re right up your alley!” When the contingent arrived for the March 22 annual meeting in Dubuque, dozens of Gateway area supporters donned pink shirts carrying the slogan. They partnered with Wide River Winery to offer samples, and presented a timeline to site selectors of the rich bowling history in the region.
Despite all the enthusiasm and hard work for their pitch, there was a sense by local organizers that Clinton-Camanche was the underdog bidder.
When the results returned, 102 of 124 were in favor of Clinton-Camanche. Garvey said she felt a chilling relief wash over her that had built over a lifetime. She described an ecstatic outburst during the meeting — for the Gateway area was again triumphant.
“We stood up and yelled and waved our arms,” Garvey said. “I had tears in my eyes.”
Gateway on deadline
In 22 months, thousands of women bowlers (and families) will stay in local hotels, shop at local stores, buy local goods, eat local foods and visit local destinations. No firm timetable is set for the 2016 women’s adult state tournament; organizers envision the event will take place over a 12 to 14 week period starting in February and ending in April.
“There will be a huge economic impact,” Green said.
This is a time, Donaire said, for Clinton and Camanche to not just knock down the pins, but bowl a strike.
“If there’s a time for us to put our best foot forward, it’s for this tournament,” she said. “For a lot of people, it’s their first impression of our community, our businesses. It will be the opportunity to make a first impression to a lot of people.”
Sondgeroth compared the event to RAGBRAI — where thousands of cyclists stop at host cities across the state of Iowa each summer.
The Chamber, CVB and local bowling associations have already started initial planning processes. Sondgeroth said he’s hoping the two cities can take ownership of what he feels is a great chance for a showcase.
“It’s not just the Chamber and the CVB coordinating this,” he said. “It’s the community saying, ‘we’re glad you’re here. Have a good time.’”
The local bowling associations are in the process of organizing an event committee to arrange each stage of the event. These are still uncharted waters for them, but Green believes the 2016 tournament will undoubtedly succeed.
“We are excited to be coming to Clinton and Camanche,” Green said. “Now’s the time to put on their Sunday best and put the best foot forward when people come to town. I just know we’re going to have a great time.”
Organizers hold hope Clinton-Camanche can host several state tournaments, and that neither city has to wait 60 years for the event to return.
Sondgeroth described feeling “humbled” that the community tried and succeeded at something new.
“We saw a depth of friendship and support and passion that people have for this event,” he said. “We just consider ourselves fortunate to be the host city of 2016. We want to make it as good as these ladies deserve.”