Deficits, apathy threat to Legion
Orillia’s long-running Royal Canadian Legion branch has much in common with veterans’ clubs across the country – an uncertain future in the face of dwindling finances and attendance. The executive is determined to turn the situation around with fresh thinking and a call for greater membership involvement. “There comes a point where you have to say it is time to deal with this,” first vice-president Colin Wackett said. “We cannot afford to carry on this way. Otherwise the roof literally comes crashing down.” The local branch has reported deficits for the past five years, closing out 2008 with a $30,000 shortfall. Declining attendance, a fall in bar sales and rising operating costs are contributing factors. “This is not isolated to Orillia, believe me,” said Wackett. “It is everywhere.” Members are concerned. A recent meeting to discuss the Legion’s future drew record attendance, with more than 250 people turning out for the brainstorming session. Many said programs catering to younger adults were crucial to ensuring the organization’s success, as the number of veterans declines each year. A monthly jam session was suggested as a potential draw, as was the introduction of mid-day programs for those less inclined to visit at night. According to Wackett, this is just the kind of thinking that is crucial to the branch’s success. “The younger generation doesn’t have the same history with the Legion as (elderly veterans) do,” he added. “How do we bring those people in? We do so much in the community that we don’t want to let go. We have got to change the methods of the past.” Orillia’s branch boasts a membership of more than 1,700, but too few regularly visit the building or become involved on a volunteer basis, he said. “If everyone who came to that meeting came into the Legion once a week, we wouldn’t be having that meeting,” Wackett added. “If ever there was a time to step forward, it’s now.” Adding to the Legion’s money problems is the rising cost of maintaining and operating its aging waterfront building. The heating bill rose to $4,200 this winter, up from $2,200 the previous year. “Sure it was a cold winter, but doubling your heating costs is pretty startling,” he said. “It means you have to raise the extra money to cover it.” The Legion relies largely on fundraising events, as well as fees from the rental of its upstairs hall to operate. While acknowledging the branch’s lakeside building could net a hefty sum – were it sold and the Legion relocated to a smaller facility – Wackett said the idea has been roundly rejected. “There is a sense of pride and ownership in that spot,” he added of the building, which was bought and paid for by the membership. Wackett was under the impression that the Legion’s Dominion Command would retain some of the proceeds from the building’s sale. As Orillia Today learned, that isn’t accurate. Individual branches reap all proceeds from the sale of their properties so long as they retain their charter, said Bob Butt, spokesperson for the Legion’s Dominion Command. A sale is subject to the approval of provincial command, he added. “They could sell their building, build the new building and they keep that extra (money),” he said in a phone interview, adding that, “If they are not dissolving, they are not losing anything.” Even so, a sale of the historic building appears to hold little appeal for the membership, regardless of their financial woes. “They have a very close attachment to that building, it is a legacy,” said Wackett. “(A proposed sale) would be rejected out of hand. “That is our pride and joy,” he added. “It has the best views of the waterfront in the city.” Whether it makes financial sense to hang on to the building out of nostalgia remains to be seen, given the hurdles facing the club. According to Butt, Orillia is not alone as it works to overcome its challenges. Legions across Canada are struggling with the realities of an aging membership, weak bar sales and falling attendance. “But we’ve still got 1,540 branches,” Butt added. “Some branches have amalgamated and some branches have closed.” The Orillia Legion’s executive will examine recommendations offered at the recent gathering, and put them to the membership during a general meeting. Along with the recommendations was a commitment from “a lot of people” to volunteer when needed, Wackett said. “Even though a lot of members are aging, it is not physical volunteering we need, it is organizational,” he said. Despite its financial woes, Wackett said the Legion would continue to support local youth programs, including baseball, air cadets and track and field. “We are determined they are going to continue,” he added. Asked whether the Legion would consider partnering with other branches in the region, Wackett said such discussions are traditionally directed by provincial or district command. “If we were approached, we would certainly listen,” he added. “We certainly would not reject any request that way.” Local members intend to meet with other branches to discuss what measures they are taking to address the challenges facing Legions. “It is time for the members to step forward and say, ‘I am willing to help,’” Wackett added of the Orillia situation. “The solution is there. It is a matter of people.” And money.