By Tim Engstrom
LA CRESCENT — In August of 2014, four members of La Crescent Post 595 and a loan officer from a bank got together on the deck of a member’s house in town and discussed the future of the Post home.
Never did the five men imagine the end of result of their efforts would come out so favorable.
“We didn’t want to be responsible for another building,” recalled Sy Fix, who was the Post 595 commander at the time. “Why sell one maintenance nightmare and go buy another one?”
Those five men were members Dan Brodigan, Dick Wieser, Mike Limberg, Fix and loan officer Joe Thesing. They gathered on Limberg’s deck.
What began on a deck resulted in Post 595 having a home without ever having to pay for it.
It’s a lesson for other Posts in financial trouble: Don’t just sell. Use your negotiation power and aim for a reincarnation at the same spot.
American Legion Gittens-Leidel Post 595 received its temporary charter in November 1947 and its permanent charter the following year.
It built the main portion of its Post home in 1960, according to the Houston County Assessor’s Office. An addition on the back and a small one on the side came in 1990.
Over the years, the Post’s club and banquet facilities had been a cherished location, but, by 2014, the Post struggled to garner customers, and maintenance and utility bills were too high.
Post 595 relied heavily on charitable gambling to pay utilities and fell behind on conducting other fundraisers, Fix said. The club had bills, and the money wasn’t there to pay them.
There is a lesson to be learned, he said.
“Posts have to know to not depend on gambling alone to pay your bills. You need other fundraisers,” said Fix, who this year is the Department of Minnesota’s membership director.
The five men on the deck that August discussed the possibilities — sell the property, hold Post meetings at a location in town, perhaps get involved in founding a community center.
On the week before Thanksgiving that year, the Post was ready to move forward. They got other community members involved and formed a committee to discuss outcomes of selling the Post’s property.
Post 595 members received notices in the mail about the plans, and they agreed to let Fix and Brodigan negotiate on their behalf. They had a letter of intent to sell, and they asked the city to assist the Post with its utility expenses.
The city came back with an answer. It wanted a hotel on the site. Fix and Brodigan were wanting a community center for the La Crescent area, and they pushed for Post 595 to always have free meeting space in the place.
The Legion’s property pretty much was the only place in town that would work well for a hotel, Fix said.
“We were in the driver’s seat.”
It took three years of city and county paperwork, talking to lenders, finding a hotelier, founding a nonprofit and raising funds, but by the end of 2017, the hard work came together. Post 595’s old home was razed in May 2018.
Post 595’s property had been subdivided, and it sold land to the hotel investors for $350,000 and to the nonprofit event center for $200,000. This deal was made possible through the city of La Crescent authorizing tax-increment financing on the land.
Post Adjutant Gary Weaver told the La Crosse Tribune for a Veterans Day story in 2017 that he was sentimental about the building. He mentioned the oval-shaped bar.
“I like how you can talk across the bar to each other,” he said. “We give each other hell, we harass each other, and it’s just generally a good time; the camaraderie here has always been fantastic.”
Nevertheless, he was fully in support of the plan, the newspaper noted.
“All of our major functions are still going to be happening once the new building is up,” Weaver said.
The nonprofit, founded in 2016, became the La Crescent Area Event Center, and it built its banquet facility in 2018.
The Post raised $35,000 for a memorial stone outside the entrance. It says “La Crescent Area Event Center: Home of La Crescent American Legion Gittens-Leidel Post 595.” It also has an American flag and the Legion emblem and says “Home Of The Free Because Of The Brave.” The back side has the names of past commanders, and the ground around it has pavers with the names of men and women who served.
The Post’s Bell UH-1 helicopter remains on display in the adjacent park.
The La Crescent Area Event Center, with an apt address of 595 Veterans Parkway, cost $4.3 million to build. It includes a room for 60 people called the Legion Room. The Post pays nothing for it. When community groups want to use the Legion Room, they must get the Post exec board’s permission.
Also, Post 595, Squadron 595 and Unit 595 have free access to the facilities, if nothing else is scheduled. The Grand Ballroom has a capacity for 360 people, and it can be divided into north and south ballrooms.
There is a catering kitchen, and the nonprofit has a list of approved caterers. Again, the Legion Family gets to be the exception. When the Department of Minnesota held its Appreciation Rally at the La Crescent Area Event Center in March, Post 595 hosted and brought in its own set of volunteers to cook and serve.
Neither the Post nor the Department had to pay any rent for the banquet hall.
The Event Center contracts out space to a bar called the Swing Bridge Pub. That means there is a bar available for events, and it means the Post 595 members have access to a bar, should members decide to relax after meetings, but they don’t have to hassle with owning one.
You probably are thinking: It’s like having a Post home without having to operate one. You are correct.
Fix said many community groups use the Event Center: the local school district, Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, Applefest, La Crescent Lions Club Pancake Breakfast, among others.
“They use it because of the space and the great audio-visual system,” he said.
The place was opened in 2019, then was closed for a year because of the pandemic, and it is now up and running again. Post 595 recently donated $5,000 to help with restart expenses.
In fact, Fix said the deed helps future-proof the deal against the possibility of future Post 595 leadership wanting to pull out of the good situation. The deed says that as long as the Post exists, there will always be a Post member on the nonprofit’s board. Presently, Fix is that representative, though Brodigan is on the board in another capacity. The deed also stipulates the other Legion perks.
One of those perks is Post 595 is the only organization allowed to operate charitable gambling at the Event Center. (The Post also has charitable gambling at Hummer’s Pub in Hokah and Saxon Hall in Brownsville.)
At the Appreciation Rally, Fix explained the Legion’s role in creating the facility and encouraged Post leaders to negotiate to their full advantage, rather than merely selling everything.
“I hope other Posts finding themselves in financial trouble can learn from our story,” he said.