[Sat Jan 11 2003]


ENERGY -- After receiving word Friday afternoon that his loan had been approved by The Bank of Herrin, Tim LaBotte wasted little time in announcing his intent to rebuild Herrin Bowl. LaBotte made the announcement early Saturday afternoon at the site of the former bowling alley in Energy, where only a concrete slab remains.

Herrin Bowl, in business since the 1950s and home to thousands of bowlers over the decades, burned to the ground Aug. 5. A work crew in charge of building a game room onto the bowling alley was unable to contain a fire that broke out on the roof of the building.

LaBotte and his wife, Crystal, were on a cruise near the Saint Thomas islands when the fire broke out, leaving their teenage sons Matt and Joseph, as well as other family members, to deal with the shock of a lost family business.

Saturday marked a new beginning.

About 40 dedicated bowlers braved the 30-degree temperatures to hear LaBotte's plan, which calls for construction on a new Herrin Bowl to begin as early as this spring. The target date to reopen is Aug. 1.

"Crystal and I think that's an achievable date," LaBotte said. "We're both excited and terrified with this undertaking. We're confident, though, that everything's going to work out right in the end."

LaBotte said the loan is for $800,000 over a 20-year period. The new facility will be a steel-frame, metal structure instead of concrete blocks. There will be 16 lanes, six pool tables -- two more than there were before -- video games, pinball machines, a snack bar, pro shop, and service counter.

"There won't be a specific game room like we had planned before the fire, but there will be much more space than last time," LaBotte said. About 1,600 more square feet to be exact.

Crystal LaBotte said there was much trepidation about rebuilding, but what sealed the deal was a gathering a couple of weeks after the fire, when nearly 300 bowlers showed up at the civic center to let the family know how much they supported them and any rebuilding efforts. Having worked the last four months as a receptionist with Absher Motors in Marion,Crystal said she may have to work multiple eight-hour shifts on some days when Herrin Bowl reopens.

"When Tim told me the loan had been approved, I started shaking and nearly hyperventilated. Believe me, I'm very happy -- scared, but happy."

Doug Ladd once bowled in three different leagues at Herrin Bowl beginning in the mid-1960s. He said he's excited that the LaBotte family has decided to rebuild.

"It's great news," he said. "Herrin Bowl is a family oriented bowling alley which many people came to enjoy. I'm glad to see it's coming back."

John Connell has a special interest in the rebuilding of the bowling alley. His uncle, William Kelley, was the man who built the original facility. Another uncle, Laverne Griffith, was a former owner.

"This is pretty neat. A lot of people wanted to see Herrin Bowl rebuilt. I can remember coming in here as a kid and asking a million questions of everybody. This place has been like home to me at times."

Linda May is a relative newcomer to Herrin Bowl. She moved to the area from Champaign. Still, like other devout Herrin Bowl bowlers, she's happy with the Labotte's decision to rebuild.

"I bowled here on Wednesday nights the last two years. It's so close to home. I really missed coming here this winter. I'm glad it's coming back," she said.