Tod Lyter isn’t concerned that there are already two candlepin bowling alleys in Westbrook or that the sport has experienced decades of decline in popularity.

He’s not even going to put out a sign this spring, when he plans to open a 14-lane alley, along with bocce ball courts and an upscale restaurant, at Prides Corner.

“You need time, when you open, to get things working right,” Lyter said.

In particular, Lyter is working on a computer-driven pinsetter he spent several years developing, which he plans to test at the new business before manufacturing it to sell.

Between the machinery and the atmosphere, Lyter believes his bowling alley will offer something so different that it will defy industry trends and won’t compete for customers with the other alleys in Westbrook or the Spare Time 10-pin center, just over the border on Riverside Street in Portland.

At a time when many 10-pin bowling alleys are changing their business models, adding new features to attract more customers, Lyter could be onto something for the small-ball version of the sport. And if his business succeeds, it could provide a much-needed boost to other alleys nearby.


“Any candlepin center than can bring people back to the game, which has existed in Maine for over 100 years, is fantastic,” said Rick Jones, president of the Maine State Candlepin Bowling Association.

Lyter worked for candlepin bowling alleys in the 1970s and, after retiring from computer sales, decided he wanted to get back into the business. He noticed, however, that the technology used in the sport was way out of date. So he took it upon himself to modernize it.

Lyter won’t say much about how his pinsetter works, other than that it eliminates the need for a sweep to clear the pins.

He’s in the process of installing them in a building off Route 302 that was a bowling alley with both the candlepin and 10-pin forms from 1964 until 1997, when it closed to become a bingo hall and, later, a flea market.

The Westbrook City Council approved the new center’s liquor license Monday and will vote on its business license once the renovations are done.

“That’s really exciting that they’re going to open,” said Rose Merrill, manager of West-Port Bowling Lanes, a Westbrook candlepin bowling alley where she’s worked for 29 years.


There was enough business to go around with the bowling alley operating off Route 302 before, she said. And even though the sport has declined in popularity in the past couple of decades, West-Port didn’t have an open lane all New Year’s Day. Three leagues were competing there Tuesday.

“There’s enough people for all the houses,” she said, referring also to Colonial Bowling Center, just down Main Street.


Kevin Sparks, who owns Colonial Bowling Center but has it up for sale, said he could imagine losing some open-bowling customers to the new center, but he doesn’t believe his league players, which make up most of his business, would go anywhere.

“I hope (the new center) does well. It could help us out,” said Sparks, who has seen a decline in customers during the 12 years he’s owned the business.

He believes 10-pin has fared better because it’s an easier game.


People like Jackie Carter of Gorham, however, don’t have a choice. Carter, 72, used to play both types of the sport, but now bowls only in a women’s candlepin league on Tuesdays at West-Port.

“I can’t lift the other (balls),” she said.

Carter likes the challenge and the camaraderie of the sport. Candlepin is more accessible to youths and the elderly because of the smaller ball, said Jones, of the state candlepin association.

He said both types of bowling face challenges, and although some 10-pin alleys in Portland have done well, the owner of a bowling center in Lewiston recently ripped out some of its 10-pin lanes to bring in candlepin.

Jones said he has seen a couple of candlepin alleys open in recent years, but since the 1990s, the association’s membership has fallen by about 50 percent. Now, a dozen centers are association members.

The total number of bowling alleys in Maine dropped from 35 in 2005 to 26 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census. Nationwide during the same period, the number of alleys fell by about 700, to just under 4,000.



The decline in the sport’s popularity, however, has not been apparent in recent years in the Portland area. Easy Day bowling opened in 2014 just over the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland, and Bayside Bowl, which opened in 2010 on Alder Street in Portland, is planning to add eight more lanes this year.

Both of those 10-pin alleys offer menus that go far beyond hot dogs and beer, while Spare Time on Riverside Street just added laser tag and a game room – all amenities that many bowling alleys have been using to attract more people.

At Lyter’s place, an alternative attraction will be bocce, a sport that he said is popular here in the summer when it can be played outdoors. He said he wasn’t aware of any other indoor courts in the area, although there is one at Otto pizza’s location on John Roberts Road in South Portland.

Lyter hasn’t done any market studies that show some unmet demand for indoor bocce courts. His business plan is much simpler and not that reliant on the popularity of candlepin bowling, either.

“I’m just trying to provide a place for people to come and have a good time,” he said.


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