The members of the last American Legion Post hall standing in St. Paul knew that, to draw a younger crowd of vets, they needed a face-lift — starting with the cramped bathrooms.
But the renovation they launched in November 2014 came with a flood of unexpected expenses — an extra $22,000 to bring wiring up to code, $30,000 for new air exchange on the roof, $130,000 for ADA and other improvements — that have thrust Arcade-Phalen Post 577 into a fight for its relevance and future.
The traditional club, typically the home of fish fries and fundraiser “taco feeds,” even has launched an online GoFundMe campaign. Members say they need to raise $65,000 to keep their legion hall, a refuge for military veterans, open for decades to come. The renovation, in addition to taxing the Legion’s finances, demonstrates its continuing struggle to adapt and attract younger veterans it needs to survive.
“We’re trying to make it pretty, make it more of a community center,” said Johnny Angelo, 47, one of the post’s younger members. “If we modernize this, it becomes more attractive for the younger vets to come in.”
Said Jim Mueller, 78: “Us older guys, we could give a [crap] about the dark brown paneling. But we’re going to do it. We need this.”
The American Legion, founded in 1919 by American servicemen in Paris after the close of World War I, approaches its 100th anniversary at a crossroads. Legion posts — as well as those of Veterans of Foreign Wars — are dwindling as World War II and Korean War vets die.
Over the past 20-plus years, American Legion membership in Minnesota has fallen from 127,000 to about 74,000, said Al Zdon, communications director for the Legion in Minnesota. As a result, about 100 Legion bars and clubs run by the Legion posts have closed.
“These posts don’t disappear,” he said. “But they are not a bar anymore.”
Last of the halls
St. Paul technically has 19 Legion posts. But only Post 577, founded in 1966, still has its own building where vets can gather. Some of the city’s posts remain active in their community, Zdon said, through Meals on Wheels or Boys’ and Girls’ State. But many others have faded to dormancy and just a handful of members.
“The city posts seem to be hit much harder than the rural posts in our decline, I think,” Zdon said. “In rural America, it is still much more of a thing to belong to associations, and the post home is where they have their weddings or anniversary parties. In the Twin Cities, that just kind of went away.”
Arcade-Phalen has seen its membership shrink from more than 570 at its peak to less than 220 today. And that is after the post absorbed members from others posts and the area’s Polish American Club.
“If the Legion — especially these inner-city posts — is going to survive, they are going to have to think outside the box,” Zdon said.
Perhaps no veterans’ association in Minnesota has done that quite like Minneapolis’ James Ballentine VFW Post 246 on Lyndale Avenue in the Uptown area. It is the last VFW Post in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
On a recent weekday afternoon, post Cmdr. Gary Miller and promotions manager Dominic Anspach stood in a gleaming new bar that looks out wide new windows onto Lyndale and talked about the steps that have infused new life into their post.
“Our location was a big part of it,” he said, noting the neighborhood bursts with under-40 folks looking for things to do.
It also helped that the post membership was willing to look forward, he said. After being courted for years by developers who wanted to buy the post to tear it down for housing and commercial space, the VFW instead sold “air rights” to a developer in 2010. It built apartments above the parking lot and an underground garage beneath it.
The post took those proceeds, added new bars and a music venue and created an entertainment schedule that attracts hipsters wanting to play games, listen to DJs or buy meat-raffle tickets — as well as preserving a domain for older vets who can still drink a beer in the unchanged back bar.
Anspach said the membership has held steady at about 500 over the past several years. But the infusion of entertainment dollars from full nights and weekends has made it more attractive to younger patrons — vets and non-vets.
“We have people here from 21 to 95 years old,” said Anspach, 30, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, “and 3,700 ‘likes’ on Facebook.”
‘Not just taco feeds’
Overcoming the image of veterans’ clubs as “the same 12 guys sitting at some old, darkened bar” is a major challenge, Miller said. That, and convincing older vets that it’s OK to modernize. “The generational gap is the biggest struggle, bar none,” he said.
He advised Arcade-Phalen to create a welcoming space and schedule events that draw in the broader community.
“Not just taco feeds,” he said. “Give people a reason to come.”
That’s exactly what Mike Buhl is trying to do. The 51-year-old Army veteran is providing some sweat equity to remake American Legion Post 577. While a sign outside the door advertises a taco night for Johnson High School hockey, as well as a Lenten fish fry and “Karaoke Kroonin,’ ” Arcade-Phalen is aiming higher, Buhl said.
They are revamping the bar and putting in a family room with Internet and television for kids. They hope much of the renovation will be finished in April. The GoFundMe money will help the post repay the $223,000 loan it took out to pay for the expected — and unexpected — expenses.
As of Friday, the campaign had raised $2,600. They hope to raise $65,000 by May 30. If not? Buhl says just raising the post’s profile will mean success. There is no imminent danger of closing, he said.
On the wish list: technology to process credit cards, and healthier food. And, someday, maybe, add an elevator and sprinkler system to reopen the bowling alley in the basement.
“It’s been a bit of a battle with the older generation,” he said of convincing the longtimers of the need to modernize. “But we have to do this.”
Buhl and Angelo say they are encouraged by a handful of younger vets who have joined, including Jenifer Dumpprope, 29, who served in Iraq. She said the remodeling is critical, not only to attract younger vets but to keep the Legion viable into the future. “It’s one of the few places where you can talk about your experiences … and have somebody understand,” she said.