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The lights were off and the doors locked at MetraPark’s Expo Center earlier this week.

The building’s vast cement floor was empty, and it was so quiet you could have heard a bowling pin drop.

That certainly wasn’t the case 10 years ago this week as work got under way to turn the spacious facility — then home to such events as livestock shows and team roping — into a bustling, 48-lane showcase for the 99th American Bowling Congress Tournament.

In around a month’s time, the construction crew deftly whipped together what became the busiest bowling center on the planet.

Then, during a 135-day stretch from Feb. 9 to June 23, nearly 54,000 bowlers, representing 10,806 teams, competed in a venue that featured glistening lanes, state-of-the-art pinsetters and a gigantic scoreboard.

The bowlers from across the nation rolled through in waves over that 41/2-month stretch, setting a record with 64 perfect games and making a huge economic impact — loosely estimated between $25 million and $35 million — on the region’s economy.

The legendary Dick Weber was among the competitors, so was Glenn Allison, the original Mr. 900.

Venders peddled the latest bowling equipment and souvenirs. The ABC staged its national convention here, and Hall of Fame ceremony.

Billings was one of the smallest cities to ever host the ABC Tournament — and in the end it received positive reviews from a majority of the visiting bowlers, workers and ABC officials.

When the tournament wrapped up, there was also considerable talk that the bowlers would happily return to Billings again in 2011 or 2012.

An effort was made by the Billings Chamber of Commerce in 2004 to get organized and secure the necessary financial commitment and support from city officials, county commissioners and local businesses to make a bid to bring the tournament back.

However, that effort seemed to fizzle as quickly as it started, and that’s a shame.

This year’s United States Bowling Congress Open Championships will be held in Baton Rouge, La., Feb. 11-July 10.

Construction has already started at the Baton Rouge River Center, which will have 48 tournament lanes and four showcase lanes.

A whopping 60,000 bowlers are expected for the 151-day event. So far, 11,300 teams have registered for Baton Rouge, which last hosted the big show in 2005.

While it was a success on most fronts, the 2002 tournament in Billings wound up being tainted in the eyes of taxpayers and county officials after a fund-raising effort by the MetraPark Foundation to help cover the $1.83 million bid for the tournament fell short.

It was reported at the time that the tournament’s eventual cost to Yellowstone County taxpayers ended up being $384,537.

It’s unfortunate that that dollar figure received the most attention, when the economic windfall for the region was simply staggering, perhaps even underestimated at $35 million.

It’s also too bad that many local businesses, who profited off the 2002 tournament, didn’t step up a couple of years later and financially support the effort to bring the bowlers back.

That was a mistake on their part, especially considering today’s sluggish economy.

And that’s a big reason why it’s dark and quiet this week at the Expo Center, while thousands of bowlers have Baton Rouge — not Billings — on their itinerary for 2012.

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The Greater Yellowstone Valley USBC will be holding its youth tournament Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 4 at Sunset Bowl.

The association’s open tournament is scheduled for Feb. 11-12, 18-19 and 25-26 at Sunset and Town & Country Lanes. The women’s tournament is March 3-4 and 10-11 at Firesides Lanes and Sunset.

Entry forms for all three events are available at all three Billings bowling centers.

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Billings will also be hosting the Montana USBC Association’s Youth State Championship Tournament April 14-15 and 21-22. The team event will be at Sunset and singles and doubles at Fireside.

Entry forms are available at area bowling centers, along with those for the Open State Championship in Great Falls (March 24-May 20) and Women’s State Championship in Helena (March 31-May 20).

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Becky Millman’s 300 game and 736 series are tops so far this season among the women competing in league play. Julie Redfern is second on the list at 255 and 723.

Dave Winslow and Travis Bird have two 300s apiece for the men.

There have been 18 300s for the men this season, with the others credited to Randy Gerhardt, Jim Blakeley, Ron Engelhardt, Brad Muri, Darin Bird, Ritchie Westberg, Damon Winslow, Paul Pacheco, Monte Gebhardt, Ray Sierra, Terry Adolph, Cory Lustig, Stu Summers and Ron Wingerter.

Nick Haney’s 847 (299, 259, 289) at Sunset last month is the association’s high series this league season. Josh Hale has put together an 818, Doug Hayes an 813 and Ken Taft an 806.

For the youth, Shane Bykonen (168-458) and Samantha Dorendorf (164-408) have the top scores in the 11-under ranks. For 12-over, Ryan Benton (235), Casey Degner (621) and Ashley Garrison (221-570) top the leader board.

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