May 08, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

While not prepared to predict what his chances of closing a deal are, The Rock bowling center owner Steve Rzonca said he is interested in buying the old Safeway building.

He would turn the 22,000-square-foot building at Fourth Street and Adams Avenue into a "multi-plex entertainment center with 24 lanes of bowling" that would help him attract major tournaments, he said.

The 2.2 acres and building was assessed by Union County at $1.6 million two years ago. If Rzonca pulls off the deal, it could be over the objections of ODS Health Plans and the City of La Grande.

ODS wants to purchase the grocery company's vacant building and land to turn it into a $6 million retail/office complex that would also house the city library, the Oregon Employment Department, and retail firms and offices.

Those discussions, led by ODS, have been going for months. Safeway vacated the site Dec. 4, 2001, and moved into its new store at Adams Avenue and Willow Street the next day.

Safeway's Ross Vontver, who handles sales of property that company owns, said he had not heard from Rzonca but said the bowling center owner may have spoken with Carl Anderson, a Portland Realtor who has the property listed.

"The property is still listed, but we are in the middle of negotiating with ODS and working hard to put that deal together," Vontver said from his Bellevue, Wash., office.

"That's my focus now, and there are no stumbling blocks I'm aware of that would hinder the sale," Vontver said. "Everybody is working hard on the deal to the mutual benefit of all. It's taken a while to put together, but this is a typical timeline for these types of negotiations."

Rzonca would not say who he is dealing with to try to secure the property, but said his talks with Safeway "are in the infancy stages. I'm not out to be competitive with the library, but we could provide a good use for the site.

"It would be a win-win opportunity for both The Rock and the downtown. We'd be closer to the downtown, the high school and Eastern Oregon University. We could dovetail our activities with both the school and the university. We would bring more people to the downtown area, which is what the merchants want and need," he said.

Having a 24-lane bowling center would be more cost effective for his operation, which opened on Cove Avenue in June 2000 with 14 lanes, an arcade and a restaurant.

"The larger building would enable me to enlarge my facility. I could make the arcade two or three more times as big as it is now and do other things better than now," he said. "I could fine tune our facility to the community's needs."

He said, "I could get state-sanctioned tournaments that would be cost effective to put on. We would have to bid on the tournaments, but the circuit does move to different cities and there are a lot of tournaments. We could bring 2,000 people, counting families of bowlers, to La Grande for a tournament.

"I've proven that I can put together something positive for the community. We already draw 300 visitors a day to our center now," Rzonca said.

"I'm thinking toward the future. If we can get that building, we can do more in a shorter time period than I had hoped. I see nothing else but positive things happening if we get it."

He said he would either sell or lease his present building, but obviously not for use as a bowling center, if he is able to conclude the purchase.

"But I want to go on this as soon as I can. I won't waste time if it looks like it's not going to go through."

On June 18, 1998, Rzonca got $25,000 in "economic development" money from the city to help pay for sidewalks, curbs and gutters in front of the bowling alley.