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HED: Group of local investors purchases former Sonora bowling alley

By ALEX MacLEAN

The Union Democrat

Most of the obvious ideas for a long-vacant former bowling alley had been tried before Brian Wahlbrink and his group of business partners took ownership of the building in December.

A dance club, restaurants, and various types of stores are just some of the plans that people have proposed since Sonora Family Bowl at 19 S. Stewart St. shut down in 2010, only to have their hopes dashed by the number of challenges the 1960s-era structure poses.

Wahlbrink says he and his partners in PWM Properties, LLC, are exploring their options, but one of the potential ventures they’re considering is storage units.

“We’re looking to see what the best fit is for the space,” he said.

The company bought the building and an adjacent vacant lot for $375,000 from the Sonora-based Real Deal California, LLC, which had owned the property since 2012.

Wahlbrink, 38, of Sonora, said there are a number of obstacles that have made past proposals not economically feasible, the two biggest of which are occupancy and a lack of parking.

“I think that’s where everyone kind of hit a wall,” he said.

The city uses a formula to determine the required number of parking spaces based on the occupancy of the building. If the spaces can’t be provided, it charges an “in-lieu” fee of about $1,500 per space that’s needed.

Wahlbrink estimated the total occupancy of the 10,000-square-foot building is roughly 300, which would likely require more than $100,000 in parking fees alone.

Even if the cost to pay the fees isn’t a problem, Wahlbrink said then there’s the issue of where all those people would actually be able to park.

Renting out the building is also difficult because of the large size.

Wahlbrink said the going rate for commercial rental space in the downtown area is between 75 cents and $1.25 per square foot. He estimated the monthly rent could be higher than $10,000, which doesn’t include the additional thousands of dollars in utility costs.

“You would have to be clearing $15,000 to $20,000 (in revenue per month) just to have it make sense,” he said.

Despite all of the challenges, Wahlbrink brings a track record of success when it comes to business and repurposing old buildings.

Wahlbrink also owns Trinity Mountain, an asset management company in downtown Sonora, and serves as chief financial officer of Sperry Farms, an almond operation in Stanislaus and Merced counties that’s been in his wife’s family for five generations.

Trinity Mountain is located on the second floor of the brick building at 207 S. Washington St. that Wahlbrink and his brother-in-law purchased and renovated in 2015, which earned them an award from the Vision Sonora Committee.

Florida businessman Doug Kennedy’s mostly completed and still unopened Sonora Armory complex is visible from Wahlbrink’s office window, which overlooks South Washington Street.

Wahlbrink pointed to the large multi-use entertainment complex that includes a restaurant, theater, retail store and outdoor beer garden as one reason he doesn’t think something similar would work at the former bowling alley.

“I don’t think the town can handle two of these,” he said. “We’re trying to find complementary businesses.”

One of those complementary businesses could be storage, which Wahlbrink said is in high demand from people both in and outside of the area.

PWM Properties has also purchased five acres of land off Tuolumne Road near the Tuolumne Utilities District headquarters that they hope to develop into 300 mini-storage units by the end of the year.

Wahlbrink said storage units are getting shorter in supply throughout the county because there are many people renting them who live primarily in places like the Bay Area, where the cost for space can be three times higher.

All of the current storage units are also located far outside the downtown area.

“There’s so many renters and business owners within a two-mile radius,” Wahlbrink said while standing outside of the former bowling alley Friday. “This is the highest density area in Sonora.”

Wahlbrink said the idea would be to have 5-by-5, 5-by-10, and 10-by-10 units that could be climate controlled. The back wall of the alley is solid concrete and also situated underground, which he believes could make an ideal place for vault-type storage.

Sonora Family Bowl opened in July 1960 and shuttered in June 2010 amidst years of slumping attendance that was made worse by the opening of the bowling alley at Black Oak Casino Resort in the early 2000s.

All of the bowling equipment has been sold and removed from the building since the business shut down, with the exception of the original 16 wooden lanes that were covered in a thick layer of dust on Friday.

As for the vacant lot next to the building, Wahlbrink envisions that part of it could be used for parking and side access to the storage units. He said the rest could be turned into anything ranging from a parking lot to a small apartment complex.

Wahlbrink noted that he and his partners are open to hearing from people with other ideas for the former alley.

“This is a very important time for us because we like hearing new ideas,” he said. “We love the downtown area, love the local nature of it, and just want to add value.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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