“They’re content to let us die out, if you will,” Sloan said.
The 24-lane alley opened in 1959 in a shopping center on New Hampshire Avenue. Sloan bought the company in 2018. Covid was tough — pandemic restrictions forced the center to temporarily close and then reopen with limited capacity — but business has bounced back, Sloan said.
And then came Labor Day weekend last year, when the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida swept through the Washington area.
“We put all kinds of water in the bowling alley,” Sloan said.
Water poured into the center, which is under the earth. For two weeks the water was three inches high under the roadways and gutters. At the end of the alley, behind the pin setting machines, there was water. Sloan brought in a sump pump to remove the water. He then reopened the center for casual bowlers, birthday parties and the league players who are his lifeblood.
Before long, customers were complaining of a damp and musty smell that irritated their noses and lungs and penetrated their clothing. Tests revealed black mold, Sloan said. Landlord BF Saul paid for his own tests, which he said found no black mold.
A plumber sent by the landlord found a hidden pit in the back of the center that was covered with a lid. Sloan said a Saul representative insisted there once was a sump pump there and accused Sloan or the previous owner of removing it, which essentially caused the flood.
Sloan said he didn’t even know there was a pit there — and neither did the previous owner.
“BF Saul immediately decided to make it his mission to blame me for everything that happened,” Sloan said.
Concerned about the health of his customers, Sloan closed the bowling alley in November. He doesn’t have flood protection on his insurance policy.
Sloan said BF Saul was helpful early in the pandemic when business was tough. But now the big real estate company is no longer reacting. “I tried to get construction drawings from the landlord,” he said. “They refused to hand them over.”
I called the BF Saul Co. and emailed them for comment. They refused to speak to me.
Sloan expects lawyers will have to be involved. Saul has agreed to conduct a third mold test this week, he said. He said the cost of cleaning up the fungal infestation could be as high as $200,000. The lanes would have to be raised and then reinstalled. That would add another $200,000 to the bill, he estimates.
That’s not a cost Sloan can handle alone. He started one GoFundMe campaign. So far, he’s $480,000 short of his $500,000 goal.
In a way, 35-year-old Sloan owes his existence to this bowling alley.
“My parents met there,” he says. “I’ve actually played bowling my whole life. I started doing this when I was about 9 years old.”
Sloan began working at White Oak when he was 15. It was his dream to own it one day. He still comes to the closed center regularly and wears a respirator.
Tenpin bowling may grab all the attention, but fans of duckpins — smaller pins, melon-sized ball, three reels per frame instead of two — insist it’s the more challenging sport.
“We’re all kind of masochists,” he said Jeremy Anderson, 45, a Silver Spring software developer and White Oak League bowler. “You can’t take yourself too seriously. That is the nature of sport. There has never been a 300 game. …you can throw the ball the same way and get a different reaction. It’s really more of a spares game than a strikes game.”
And Duckpin Bowling is as Maryland as Skipjacks and Old Bay. Should White Oak Duckpin Lanes not reopen, it means a tiny piece of the state’s legacy will be lost.
Until the mold outbreak Chris Roth was another White Oak regular. His mother went into labor with him there 46 years ago. He works at WTOP and owns a duckpin center in Baltimore.
About 20 years ago, he said, Maryland’s duckpin fanatics failed in their attempt to replace the jousting tournament with duckpin bowling as the state’s official sport.
“I’m pretty sure there are more people doing duckpin bowling in Maryland than there are tournaments,” Roth said.
Unfortunately – for now at least – they don’t do it at White Oak Duckpin Lanes.