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Paul Bunyan Bowl to close

Mike McFarland, owner of the Paul Bunyan Bowl and its sports bar and grill, said1 / 2
Sportland Cafe moved out of the Sportland Corners site, which, years ago, was ho2 / 2

BAXTER — After more than two decades in business as the Paul Bunyan Bowl, the business on Excelsior Road is closing its doors. 

And in Nisswa, another long-term area business, the Sportland Cafe, left its building at the landmark Sportland Corner with plans to reopen elsewhere while it continues its Mary Etta’s Pies business at another location. 

For Paul Bunyan Bowl owner Mike McFarland, the decision to close came after four years of struggling. With a slow economic recovery, he decided it was time to quit. McFarland said Mills, which has Fleet Farm across the street from the bowling center, bought the business and will close on the sale soon. The bowling alley will close after a final weekend bash on July 8-9. 

“My dreams are gone,” McFarland said. “This was going to be my retirement.”

McFarland said government decisions and regulation didn’t prevent the housing meltdown and subsequent recession. A decline in business and taxes that haven’t adjusted fast enough, the smoking ban and law enforcement regarding alcohol consumption and driving all played a role, McFarland said. 

Before the smoking ban, McFarland said his alcohol sales were about $500,000 a year. After the ban, he said those sales were cut nearly in half. Also negatively affected he said were pull tab sales. League bowling and open bowling declined annually, McFarland said. With Jack’s House in Brainerd, McFarland said there is not enough business to support both bowling centers. 

“Our financial situation got to the point we couldn’t pay the bills anymore,” he said. 

McFarland employed about 28 workers four years ago. That number dropped to eight. Now McFarland said he has workers who are devastated by the news. 

“It’s sad and frustrating that it’s come to this level,” he said, seated in a booth in the dining area. 

Artwork on the wall and the artistic windows hearken back to the day when the entire corner was in the McFarland family and the giant talking Paul Bunyan in the amusement park bearing his name welcomed generations of tourists to the lakes area.

Paul Bunyan Land is now on Highway 18 east of Brainerd. Kohl’s is on the old amusement park site and another big box will replace the bowling alley, where outside a statue of Paul Bunyan holds a bowling ball and Babe the Blue Ox has a bowling pin in his mouth. The restaurant — and its stained glass windows — are reminders of its former life as the popular supper club Pauline’s, which the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center purchased in 1989. 

McFarland said much of the art work will be sold along with the bowling lanes and interior of the business. But with the economy McFarland said he expects to get 10 cents on the dollar. The family has plans for the statues and the stained glass windows. Pretty much everything else is on the sale block. 

When the economy is bad for this long, McFarland said it’s sad government and the school district can’t react and cut back on rules and taxes to allow a business to survive.

Property taxes for 2011 are listed as $32,295. The business is currently listed as delinquent. McFarland said he had to borrow money from his family for the past four years to keep the business afloat. He said now it’s good to have a neighbor like Mills purchase the business so he can pay his bills. 

At the party in July with musical entertainment, money for Babe’s Benefit Rally will go toward prostate cancer efforts and the Jon  Haapajoki Memorial Fund. 

McFarland has tried numerous changes — remodeling the restaurant, changing the menu, adding youth bowling attractions. McFarland has supported youth bowling programs with the high school and bowling options for people with disabilities. 

McFarland is still setting up a free shuttle service to bring area hotel guests to the bowling alley and he tried unsuccessfully to set up an afterschool program using a bus to collect youths,. 

He said he was first told by one agency he needed a bus but it couldn’t resemble a school bus. So he put a couple thousand dollars into paint for a bus without the full stop sign arm and light system and was a week from starting the program. Then, he said he was told he had to have a standard school bus and license to shuttle the kids. 

He said he didn’t pursue a plan to put in a patio when the city of Baxter told him it would cost thousands of dollars in water and sewer fees. 

Now McFarland said doesn’t know what he’ll do next. 

“I’ll land on my feet somewhere,” McFarland said. 

Wednesday afternoon, McFarland was getting out shoes for a 4-year-old bowler and setting up the lane bumpers that help guide the ball to the pins. 

Tony Smith brought two of his daughters to bowl. His 4-year-old Grace requested the outing. Her younger sister Anabelle accompanied Grace to check out the lanes. Smith said they enjoy bowling as a family outing and first came to Paul Bunyan Bowl for a child’s birthday party event.

“There is something old school about bowling,” Smith said. After learning the bowling alley was closing this summer, Smith said it was sad news. 

At Sportland Corners in Nisswa, owners Ron and Cyndi Burnard moved out of the Sportland Cafe spot. The Burnards said they are planning a re-opening in the near future in a new facility. The Burnards also own Mary Etta’s Pies. 

Sportland Corners, now a rough looking corner with long-vacant businesses once housed by several enterprises — the cafe, a convenience store and gas station.  

“We shut our former facility down due to the fact that after 14 years of leasing the space we haven’t been able to get any leasehold improvements done,” the Burnards said in an email statement. “Our side of the building was leaking from the roof in several places, we haven’t had adequate heating and air conditioning for the past six years and our parking lot is full of holes.”

In 2009, the Burnards were looking at expanding both the cafe and the pie business. They purchased Sportland Cafe in 1998 and Mary Etta’s Pies in 2001. Two years ago, the Burnards said they were battling the  recession and the impression the corner left with potential patrons who may have thought all the businesses there were closed. 

The Burnards said they are now producing Mary Etta’s Pies out of The Old Waterfall, on Highway 371 North of Brainerd.

“We are continuing to work on a new building for both the pies and a new Sportland Cafe,” the Burnards stated. “We thank all of our customers for their patronage and look forward to serving them in the future.”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.