Historic Southside venue gets a second life thanks to local residents.
DANVILLE – When Danville’s Riverside Lanes opened in 1960 along Riverside Drive, it was the place to be. According to 27-year-old former employee Dontrel “Trel” Fitzgerald, that aspect of the bowling alley didn’t change as the years progressed.
“Friday and Saturday were the ideal times to come in and just enjoy that atmosphere – whether it was the music, the beer, the bowling, whatever you wanted to do. There was always something in that place to take part of,” Fitzgerald said.
About a week ago, all of that changed.
The bowling alley quietly switched the operating hours on its Facebook page to “permanently closed.”
Losing a Local Treasure
The original Riverside Lanes had 32 bowling lanes until the 1970s, when the owners added 10 more. That made the alley one of the largest bowling centers not only in Virginia, but also in nearby North Carolina, where the city borders.
The business closed for seven months in 2006 when it switched ownership. Six years later, ownership changed again.
Last year Riverside Lanes underwent a renovation. The business turned their snack counter into a bar and grill area, serving everything from quesadillas and chicken wings to local craft beers.
When COVID-19 hit the area in March, Riverside Lanes closed like many other non-essential businesses.
Yelp reported that nearly 98,000 businesses have permanently closed during the pandemic.
Business Closing Strikes Former Employee as Wrong
Fitzgerald plans to open Riverside Lanes once again. Not only for the league bowlers, but for everyone.
“With corona going on and everything, seeing that taken from Danville, I see the effect on my friends here and how they have to travel so far away just to be able to enjoy the act of bowling,” said Fitzgerald. “I want that to be here again. I feel like Riverside Lanes was such a staple in the Danville community that people didn’t believe it and didn’t know until it was gone.”
Fitzgerald spoke with several passionate community members, including the former general manager at Riverside Lanes.
“I was like, ‘What can we do? What can we get up and going? Get it back up and running?’” Fitzgerald said.
The Danville native also expressed concern for the area’s youth. He said without the alley, they have fewer places to go while school’s closed.
“When you were a teenager, this was it. Riverside Lanes was where you were dropped off Friday and Saturday night. ‘Well, have fun. I’ll be back to pick you up a little bit later on.’ And that was it,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, that’s gone. Kids are out here, whether they’re walking the streets or they’re hanging out at the mall. It’s not the same thing. I’d rather them be here at the bowling alley, where you can just be yourself.”
Prized Possessions Pinned Inside
On June 30, Riverside Lanes posted on their Facebook page that league bowlers could access their lockers the following day for one hour, from 1 to 2 p.m.
The limited time frame and short notice didn’t work for some people.
Danville resident Kayla Nichol is still actively assisting her boyfriend and his father in getting their belongings back from the lockers at Riverside Lanes.
“[They] never were given another opportunity to get them back other than that one chance they provided on the Facebook page for one hour during a Wednesday when most people are at work,” Nichol said. “We have tried calling, emailing and messaging to no avail. My boyfriend’s dad – and I’m sure a bunch of other people – are in the same situation. They were league bowlers, so they kept their personal bowling balls, shoes and other equipment there in lockers.”
The family lost several hundred dollars worth of personal belongings, which are still locked inside the business.
“I don’t have an exact amount but it’s somewhere around $600 to $700 dollars in stuff between him and his dad,” Nichol said. “And truth be told, the bowling balls are probably not able to be used anymore sense the extreme temperatures can mess them up.”
Nichol expressed understanding about the virus, but said it shouldn’t stop her family from regaining their property.
“Like, we all understand the unfortunate circumstances that the pandemic has put businesses in, but at least allow for the people to get their personal belongings,” Nichol said.
Sparing the Bowling Alley
When the bowling alley announced its closure last week, Fitzgerald jumped into action. He created a Facebook page called Trel for Riverside Lanes. There, he started laying out a game plan to open the alley once again.
“Right now, I’m just in that planning stage of trying to get everything together,” Fitzgerald said. “I just want everyone to remember Riverside Lanes. This is the place.”
The idea quickly gained traction. Within a week, Fitzgerald had 264 supporters that “liked” the page.
Fitzgerald is recognizable in the community as someone who’s connected to Riverside Lanes. He not only grew up bowling at the alley, but also worked there from 2013 to 2019.
“I’ve been a part of Riverside Lanes as long as I can remember,” Fitzgerald said. “My father and a lot of people in my family bowled. I grew up as a bowler and next thing I know as a teenager, I’m working there.”
He started out as a front desk attendant and worked his way up to the shift manager position.
“When I first started bowling, it was something that my family did and I enjoyed it,” Fitzgerald said. “I never thought that it would become a part of my life.”
These days, he’s heading up a movement to save it.
“Now that it’s not here, I want it back,” Fitzgerald said. “Now if I’m the only one that feels like that, well okay. But obviously, we’ve got a whole page full of people who all feel the same way. So let’s make something happen. Let’s get it going.”
Getting the Ball Rolling
“Bowling is a part of Danville’s community, whether people want to admit it or not,” Fitzgerald said. “Riverside Lanes, to me, I think that should be a historical landmark of Danville. People don’t realize the history of that place, the things that have taken place in that place. Riverside Lanes has been here longer than most anybody in Danville, over 60 years. Come on, guys. That’s history right there in the making.”
To become a historical landmark in Virginia, a property must have achieved historical significance at least 50 years before today. Properties of ‘exceptional importance’ can also be nominated to the Virginia Landmarks Registrar.
While no official plans are in place to bring the alley back, Fitzgerald says he already has ideas on how to adapt the business to the pandemic once it reopens.
“As of right now with corona going on, I know that could be a very big problem in bringing it back,” Fitzgerald said. “But even with that going on, there are many, many ways that we can still open that place up and make it run. Whether we have to spread out, make sure masks are [worn], whatever. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
As Trel for Riverside Lanes gains momentum, Fitzgerald thanked his followers and asked that people continue showing their support.
“Just keep doing what they’ve been doing – liking the page, sharing, taking part of the actions and the things we’ve put up on the page. ,” Fitzgerald said. “People are watching. People are paying attention. So if the community is talking, that’s great. That’s showing that, hey, we need to make something happen.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].