Legion in financial trouble
Orillia’s chronically cash-strapped Royal Canadian Legion branch requires fresh thinking and greater membership involvement to survive, says a member of its executive. “There comes a point where you have to say it is time to deal with this,” said first vice-president Colin Wackett. “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, he said. Declining attendance, a fall in bar sales and rising operating costs are contributing to the annual deficits. “This is not isolated to Orillia, believe me,” said Wackett. “It is everywhere.” A meeting held Sunday to discuss the Legion’s future drew record attendance, with more than 250 members 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. “The younger generation doesn’t have the same history with the Legion as (elderly veterans) do,” Wackett 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.” The Legion 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, for example, 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.” A portion of members’ annual fees goes to the local branch, and the provincial and Dominion commands take the remainder. The Legion relies largely on fundraising events, as well as fees from the rental of its upstairs hall, to operate. 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. While acknowledging the 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. A potential sale would require the approval of the Legion’s Dominion Command, which would retain any funds not used to construct a new building, he said. “It is not really a viable option for us,” he said. The Legion’s executive will examine the recommendations offered Sunday, which will be put to the membership for a decision during a general meeting. Along with the recommendations was a commitment from “a lot of people” to volunteer when needed, he said. “Even though a lot of members are aging, it is not physical volunteering we need, it is organizational,” he said. 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 financial hurdles 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.” A memorial patio underway on the waterfront side of the building will allow members and guests to enjoy a drink outdoors in warmer weather, and, in one designated area, a cigarette. “It’s not going to hurt,” he said.