Newcomers seek to make pool hall a safe community space

Two weeks, some planning and a little financial help was all it took for three Kenai residents to get the doors of Sharps Billiards open again.

The pool hall, located on the Kenai Spur Highway just east of Forest Drive, opened in 2008 but closed in 2014, reopening briefly in early 2016 but was only open sporadically. Audrey Marvin and Bradley Cucullu came in to play pool a few times when it was open in the spring and kept wishing it would be open more consistently, she said.

Then one night, she saw a Facebook ad with the pool hall for lease.

“It was really weird, this moment that he just happened to see that ad,” Marvin said. “I met with (the owner) at noon the very next day, and then right after I met with her, I called (Cucullu) and said, ‘Hey, want to open a pool hall?’”

“I thought it was a joke,” Cucullu said. “And I was like, ‘No.’”

But two days later, they signed the papers. Calling on her mother Pam Rutledge for help, the three of them drummed up enough for the down payment and got the keys to the business, which was turnkey-ready, pizza oven and pool sticks included. They officially opened last week and have already had people coming by every day, Rutledge said.

Marvin said she worked at Sharps for a brief stint back when the original owner, Philip Brower, ran the business. However, the three new owners are still learning about the game themselves.

“There were some books left here,” Marvin said with a laugh. “I’m reading those.”

Although they enjoy pool, it wasn’t the game itself that led them to seize on the place. Kenai has few places for families to go for entertainment besides the two movie theaters, Jumpin’ Junction on Kalifornsky Beach Road and the Kenai Recreation Center, all of which are closed in the evening. Since the closure of Kenai’s bowling alley, there aren’t many place to go for entertainment in the evening besides the bars.

For many who are recovering from alcohol or drug abuse, the bars aren’t an option. They were who Marvin, Cucullu and Rutledge had in mind when they sprung at the chance to reopen Sharps.

Marvin and Rutledge are both members of the recovery community, made up of people coming out of drug addiction. On Friday evening, Rutledge proudly showed off an enameled pink coin with a delicate gold “III” etched in the center — a marker for three years’ clean. The coin was Marvin’s before.

People recovering from addiction need a safe place away from the temptations of drug and alcohol, Rutledge said. To provide that, she began hosting game nights at her house and to allow people to stay with her when they needed to. Marvin and Cucullu have done the same.

“Having someplace safe to go enjoy some activity and just get away for a little bit, that’s really what I see for it,” Cucullu said. “A place for people to go have fun and stay away from all the garbage.”

They envision Sharps as a community establishment, free of drugs and alcohol, where families can come and feel comfortable spending time as well as a safe space for all people regardless of their background. They plan to offer scheduled nights for church groups, seniors, singles, LGBTQ individuals and other groups in the community.

Having only been open for a week, they’re still working out what things will look like in the future, but they already have an eight-ball tournament scheduled for Dec. 3 to celebrate the grand reopening. Seniors, military and students get a 10 percent discount, and students get a free hour if they bring in a report card with all A’s or 50 percent off an hour with all A’s and B’s. There will be free WiFi and the future may bring other events like karaoke, youth lock-ins and healthy lunches during the day, Marvin said.

Alongside the seven pool tables, mechanical dartboards ping. Soon, a TV will occupy a bit of shelf space, but it won’t be on all the time — they’ll turn it on for some events, but in general, Marvin said she wants the business to be a place where people can spend time together, not just watching a screen.

The three owners are splitting the duties between them, alternating who is there and how to run the business. The shop is open from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday–Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday.

Despite the shop’s fluctuating history, the new owners are confident they can keep it open. With help from the community, they’re willing to give it a go, and some of the previous problems aren’t likely to resurface, Marvin said.

“There are some people in the recovery community who are so excited that this place is even in existence right now that they’re willing to do whatever they need to do to make sure it stays open,” Marvin said. “… the worst thing that could happen is we fail. The best thing that could happen is we don’t.”

“We want a nice, safe place for families to come,” Rutledge said. “That’s the bottom line. I see seniors enjoying it on Wednesday afternoons, whole families coming in, church groups playing against each other, just a nice, safe place to come. I see this place full of happiness.”

Sharps Billiards will host its grand reopening tournament on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 12 p.m. Entry costs $25, and all ages are welcome. There will be two levels of play, one advanced and one entry-level.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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