Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The Arcata Veterans Memorial Building and the organizations it houses continue to meet, eat, work, dream, improve and expand the venerable J Street facility.
Friday night saw a lively meeting of American Legion Post 274 in the Great Hall, while downstairs in the Whiskey Locker canteen, the newly restored Women’s Auxiliary Unit 274 held its first meeting. There is serious talk of the hall hosting the statue of William McKinley after it is removed from the Plaza.
But the upward arc in the Vets Hall's growth as a community hotspot is being tempered by some difficult constraints. The groups’ ambitions are limited not by any lack of energy and ideas, but by challenges fiscal and physical. Still the vets forge ahead, tallying victories and overcoming obstacles as they crop up.
The Legion meets
Following the traditional 5 p.m. dinner, Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling started Friday’s meeting on an upbeat note. He announced that the Legion’s auxiliaries – support organizations for the post and hall – were formally coming into being. Along with the Women’s Auxiliary, the Sons of the American Legion is ramping up with two vets, one Marine and the other Navy.
In his regular monthly report, Finance Officer Bill Kohse offered his rundown of the post’s finances – but this time with some somber news.
The hall now has improved control over its finances via online banking, allowing virtually instantaneous access to figures through the World Wide Web. It has also added a mailbox at the facility rather than using only a post office box. All of this offers unprecedented control and timely understanding of finances.
Tracking expenses, Kohse said, “starts to build a story.” April was challenging, with expenditures exceeding income. While it’s unlikely that the post will become insolvent, the tough ledger situation promises to continue for reasons internal and external.
Rental revenue is down. Other halls are competing for the same types of events, and in some ways can’t be individually heated. Any renter using a single room for just an hour and a half must activate the heating system for the entire, 9,956-square-foot building, and the heat may remain on for six hours.
Between the heat, water, sewer, insurance and innumerable other expenses, it costs up to $1,500 per month “just to keep the doors open” at the hall.
On top of that, installing thermostats for individual room control will cost around $500, but the droopy drapes in the Great Room pose a much costlier challenge. They don’t retain heat, and replacement costs are a whopping $13,231.
The new expenses come at a time when the aging Vets Hall finds itself less than competitive in wrangling rentals. A key shortcoming is, of all things, its lack of pancake-friendliness. The batter-based breakfast delights are a staple of community fundraisers, but the hall’s downstairs kitchen lacks a stove flat top. This limits its ability to turn out flapjacks efficiently, and sends some renters elsewhere.
Besides the flat top deficit, there’s no deep-fryer, another hit to the kitchen’s usability. And apart from that, the kitchen is out of code and needs a complete renovation. Stove hoods, for example, can’t be installed because the stove is located beneath a window, and shouldn’t be.
Sterling said that all told, the needed kitchen improvements add up to an “astronomical” $120,000. “We’ve lost contacts here because we lack the proper cooking facilities,” Sterling said.
It doesn’t help that some legionnaires are skipping out on their meal tab. The pre-meeting dinner – featuring pork chops, vegan spaghetti and sides – was prepared by Auxiliary members and needs to at least pay for itself. “Ten dollars isn’t very much for the kind of dinner we had tonight,” Kohse admonished.
Sterling said a new project board has been created to track the hall’s needed improvements.
Despite Kohse’s dour assessment that “things are going down the dumper,” they’re also looking up in some key ways.
A formal vote was taken re-establishing the all-female Women’s Auxiliary Unit 274 as well as the all-male Sons of the American Legion. Both need a minimum of 10 members in order to officially constitute.
The recent Arcata Chamber of Commerce mixer at the hall made many attendees aware of its availability, and of its potential as a community partner.
Sterling proudly passed around the plaque awarded the Arcata Veterans Hall at the recent annual awards dinner, at which the hall was named New Chamber Member of the Year.
Arcata Main Street has booked it for the May 5 kickoff for the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival. The hall will have a table at the OysterFest.
Legionnaire Phillip Nicklas said the most recent swing dance was well attended. About 60 people showed up, and the hall cleared $350 from the event.
The College of the Redwoods Jazz Band, a big draw, is playing at the next end-of-month dance, and is happy to be paid in pizza. “That band rules,” interjected Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2542 Commander Phil Irvine.
Rachel Parry of the Redwood Vets Center announced that coordinator positions are open at North Coast Stand Down, which is accessible via Facebook.
Trae Garza, veterans employment representative for the Eureka Employment Development Dept., encouraged vets seeking employment to contact him at (707) 441-5709 or Trae.Garza@edd.ca.gov.
A raffle was held for a 50-inch TV the post bought for $300. Some $520 was raised, and Legionnaire Jim Zabel won the massive flatscreen.
McKinley in motion
A motion to accept the statue of William McKinley once it is removed from the Plaza was tabled out of concern for involving the Legion and Vets Hall is a still-roiling controversy. A new activist group opposes statue removal and is mounting a petition drive to turn the matter over to Arcata voters (see page A3).
Though the matter had been tabled, Legionnaire John Kulstad spoke up about the statue. “I think we ought to give that some careful thought,” he said. “Everybody’s views have to be taken into consideration, including the Native Americans, who have a somewhat different view of President McKinley than, perhaps, others,” he said.
Further, Kulstad noted, impacts on the hall’s neighbors have to be taken into account.
The hall has no obvious place to put the statue, and costs are unknown. The County of Humboldt, which owns the hall, might have to formally accept the statue.
“These things ought to be thought out,” he said.
Sterling stressed that the matter had been tabled, and that any decision would be arrived at through a democratic process.
The meeting closed with the traditional POW/MIA memorial service, with Nicklas removing the black shroud from the chair at the Missing Man table with assistance from his daughter, Clara.
Auxiliary Unit 274
Alison Robbins, acting president of the newly re-formed Women’s Auxiliary Unit 274, hopes to fill out the group’s ranks. “We need to get 10 ladies into the unit in order to do a charter,” she said. There are presently nine applicants awaiting approval by the state organization. Once accepted, they will be sworn in at a special membership ceremony.
She hopes to be able to elect officers in May, then swear them in concurrent with Post 274’s ceremony in June or July.
The Legion’s four-day State Conference is in June, and if fundraising is successful, local legionnaires and Auxiliary members will be able to attend. Another upcoming event is the national Legion convention, set for Aug. 24 through 30 in Minneapolis, Minn., which Robbins plans to attend.
She and Sterling hope to get leadership training for their officers. Robbins is working with Legion Post 205 in Fortuna on this.
Once up and running, the Auxiliary will tackle a broad slate of projects. It would take over the hall’s new community trash cleanup efforts, which have gotten off to a good start. Committees could take on matters of civic and community pride, youth and community service.
There are numerous holidays that the hall will participate in that require preparation – Memorial Day, Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day, Flag Day, Army Birthday, Independence Day and more.
“The Auxiliary exists to support the Legion post, especially when first beginning,” Robbins said. “Then they create activities around causes.”
Robbins said her model is “leading by example, nurturing strengths and overcoming weaknesses,” so as to “encourage the foundation of the entire Legion family.”
Of particular interest to Robbins is cultivating the leadership skills of young women. “I’d like to start with younger women, those under 17 who may join as junior members, and foster and mentor them in leadership roles,” she said.
Robbins advocates for Americanism – the kind marked by belief in self-government, equal opportunity, freedom of speech, and a belief in progress.
“We’ll advocate for better public relations by veterans, a better understanding of vets and how we can work together with the community.”
Robbins has created an “American Legion Auxiliary Unit – Arcata #274” Facebook page.