For decades, they met in the classic, concrete bar and banquet hall that still bears their name: American Legion Post 290. But last week, for the first time, the capped veterans filed into a bright, small storefront two blocks away. This is the post’s new home. No banquet hall, no kitchen, no beer. Soon there will be pulltabs, said Steve Grandgenett, the post’s gambling manager, but played over coffee, rather than whiskey.
“This is a paradigm shift for the legion,” he told the 15 men gathered here Tuesday.
Faced with shrinking, graying membership and rising costs, some veterans’ posts across the state are abandoning the massive clubs they built when World War II and Vietnam veterans packed meetings. VFW Post 323 in Oak Park Heights auctioned off its building in October. The legion in Worthington sold its club a few years back. In Blackduck, near Bemidji, members of American Legion Post 372 met in their building last week for the final time.
Some, like the Cambridge legion, are downsizing to smaller spaces that feature a fraction of the taxes, utilities and insurance costs. Others plan to rent or share. A few are unsure of the next step.
“The next few months, we’ll be redefining ourselves,” said Eldon Dietel, 68, commander of the post in Blackduck. “We’ll be a legion post, but our fundraising will have to change.”
Nationwide, the number of VFW buildings has fallen, said Randi Law, spokeswoman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Partly due to declining membership, some “posts close their canteens and move meetings and gatherings to a public space,” she said.
In Minnesota, the legion has lost a quarter of its members over the past decade. The American Legion Department of Minnesota does not track how many buildings or businesses its 564 posts own or operate. Some posts have done their service work without a physical club since their inception, said Mike Ash, the statewide commander.
But others have struggled to keep up aging clubs in the face of rising costs, he said. “In many cases the only fiscally smart move is to sell the building.”
VFW Post 1222 in Fairmont used to have a two-story club that held 800 people — perfect for the one or two wedding dances it hosted each weekend.
Those gatherings were “half the business at one point,” said Veryl Champine, the post’s quartermaster. “But it just dwindled off to virtually nothing.”
When the club was built in 1948, for World War II veterans in their 20s, “nobody gave a thought to handicapped access,” Champine said. But in recent years, the “10 steps up, 10 steps down” became difficult for members in their 80s and 90s. A fix would have cost more than $200,000. Plus, the club’s size no longer made sense for membership that had fallen from 1,300 to 400.
So with “mixed emotions,” leaders sold in 2011, Champine said. The post’s new building is one-tenth the size, with a quarter of the utility costs.
Property taxes hurt
For VFW Post 323 in Oak Park Heights, it was property taxes of about $28,000 a year that proved too tough. In recent years, the club lost $6,000 to $8,000 annually, said Jim Wright, 65, the post’s quartermaster. Where they’ll go next is uncertain.
Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber said she understands the post’s struggles but hopes the post ends up occupying a smaller space in town. Her family threw a party at the club for her son, a member of the National Guard, when he was deployed in 2008. Decades ago, she said, the club held Christmas parties for veterans’ children.
“It’s sad,” McComber said of the post’s decline. “It’s been around a long time.”
Leaner and meaner
Flagging membership is partly due to a smaller pool of veterans, the VFW and American Legion say. The legion’s sign-up rate of eligible veterans has remained about 25 percent for decades, said Ash, the state commander.
“As the number of veterans in Minnesota has declined, so have our membership numbers,” he said. “But we are leaner, meaner and still carrying on the work of helping veterans, helping our communities and our youth.”
Such services are what posts need to emphasize with potential recruits, post commanders say. Many support Scout troops and youth sports teams, run scholarship contests and, on holidays, place flags on veterans’ graves. Some posts have been downplaying their bars and experimenting with day care services and computer kiosks, Ash said.
“The one expression you hear the most is, ‘I don’t need another watering hole,” Wright said. “The perception is still out there that it’s just a bunch of guys sitting around drinking, telling war stories.”
To be sure, some clubs are thriving. The American Legion post in Long Prairie, northwest of St. Cloud, moved into a new building in 2004, doubling its space. With donations and fish fries, the $300,000 mortgage was paid off in seven years — 14 years ahead of schedule.
Then they put up a new sign with a bright, digital display that can be seen from Hwy. 71. Its $30,000 cost? Also paid off.
“People appreciate our service, the club’s cleanliness, the camaraderie,” said Commander Gary Peterson, who served in the Navy from 1964 to 1972.
The post pays a full-time bar manager, but volunteers do everything else. Peterson himself is down at the club four times a week, he said, making repairs and finishing projects. Membership stands at 250, an all-time high.
“Right now, we’re holding our own,” Peterson said. “We’d like more new, younger members. They’re the ones who will keep it alive.”
Dinger letters didn’t help
At Cambridge’s monthly meeting, the accessories told the story of the post’s aging membership: Thick glasses, hearing aids, canes.
Darrell Johnson, 70, stood to give an update on membership: 310 dues-paying veterans. Despite rounds of “dinger letters” reminding folks to pay, that’s short of the 405-member goal for 2013.
“And we ain’t got much [time] left in this year,” said Johnson, who served in the Navy from 1960 to 1966. Each funeral hurts, he said, and recently, the post’s color guard did two in one day. “A lot of our members are older and they’re dying.”
In the new space, Cambridge post leaders hope to create a casual, “coffee-shop atmosphere” that attracts families, said Commander Clark Swanson. So far, they’ve painted and put up several flags. But the sign outside still advertises “Christian Books and Gifts.”
John Mancuso, 33, doesn’t mind that the new post lacks a bar. He joined the legion to “keep serving my country.” Mancuso served in the Marines for “two years, three months and 18 days,” until he suffered a traumatic brain injury after sliding down a 40-foot cliff.
Some veterans his age think the legion is “all a bunch of old fogies,” he said. “But I like talking to old guys.”