West Coast Billiards goes under

Graham Kelly, of Tampa, knocks another ball in while playing pool at West Coast Billiards in St. Petersburg. Kelly is a regular and even played at the hall’s opening night in ’88. The pool hall is closing on Aug. 31 after more than two decades.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Graham Kelly, of Tampa, knocks another ball in while playing pool at West Coast Billiards in St. Petersburg. Kelly is a regular and even played at the hall’s opening night in ’88. The pool hall is closing on Aug. 31 after more than two decades.

Most of the lockers are cleaned out and the display case is just about empty. The pool tables, the ice machine — all the equipment has to go. Except the autographed photo of Willie Mosconi. That's part of the problem, say some of the regulars who come in here. Fewer and fewer people even know who Mosconi was. After more than 20 years in business, Wally Miracle will close the doors to West Coast Billiards on Aug. 31. He can't draw enough players to keep going. Once all the equipment is out, Miracle, 63, will lease the building to a fitness club.

There are only a handful of pool halls left in the Tampa Bay area that derive most of their revenue from table rentals, and many of them are also feeling the pinch. Analysts say the pool hall industry in general is suffering, primarily because of higher food and gas prices, online poker, and video games.

And it's not just the tables that often sit empty. Miracle, who runs West Coast with his wife, Charleen, points to an empty wall. They used to take in about $1,000 a week in revenue from the arcade games that used to stand there. But PlayStations and Xboxes put a stop to that.

Miracle charges $2.90 an hour to rent a table, well below the national average of about $10 an hour. But even as his taxes and insurance climbed to nearly $40,000 a year, he resisted upping his rate.

"We need a jukebox, more food, bigger bar ... things we weren't willing to do to raise the extra money," he said. "I wanted this to last a couple more years, but we can't.

"My biggest regret is that we kept our price so low. But it's too late now. This is a dying thing."

More like a prolonged illness, said Nick Leider, associate editor of Billiards Digest, an industry trade publication. Leider thinks the industry began its decline about eight years ago, but can right itself.

"It's hard to maintain a successful pool hall now," Leider said, "because of things like the Internet and video games and even statewide smoking bans. This is the hardest time in the industry in decades."

The players are out there and there's still interest in the sport, he said. "But its hard to get people to join a league or get them into the halls more than once in a while."

Leider suspects the industry may turn a corner in a few years, but not without some changes.

"Part of the problem is that a lot of owners are not businessmen," he said. "The billiards industry at its core is a mom and pop business — owners who love the game but may not understand the financial end of it."

In Florida, the hope is that the winter tourist season and slightly declining gas prices will ease the strain. Tara Pugh, co-owner of Big O's Billiards in Tampa, said her business has been off lately, "but I'm hoping that's going to change," she said.

And Paul Spell, general manager of Park Place Billiard Club in Clearwater, said he's still making money, although business is down about 15 percent. "It's a shame West Coast is closing," Spell said, "because it was an institution in St. Petersburg.

"At lot of people don't understand that pool isn't like poker. It takes years of practice to become a good player. But it's worth it."

The night West Coast opened in 1988, Graham Kelly was there. He still comes in once a week from his home in Tampa. A former Air Force champion, Kelly, 62, once played Willie Mosconi, who many consider the greatest player of all time, in a straight pool exhibition. "I lost 100 to 0," Kelly said. "He never missed. I just sat there and clapped.

"Hopefully Wally (Miracle) will be back," Kelly added. "These things go up and down."

Even Mosconi found a way to play during hard times. According to biographers, Mosconi's father, the owner of a poolroom, tried to discourage his young son by hiding the billiard balls.

But Mosconi improvised by practicing with small potatoes from his mother's kitchen and a mop handle.

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8247.

The numbers on billiards players

. Nearly 47-million in the U.S., and 13.4-million are frequent (more than 25 times a year) players

. 60 percent are male

. 60 percent are over age 25

. 60 percent have an annual household income under $75,000

. 42 percent live in a city of 2-million or more

. 30 percent have a college degree or higher

Source: Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, 2007 data

West Coast Billiards goes under 08/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 2:42pm]

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