Generations of Collingswood veterans always had a home at the American Legion Tatem-Shields Post No. 17, whether they sought a place to socialize, memorialize fallen comrades or even bowl a few frames in the basement.
Soon, those memories could become just a footnote in Collingswood’s history.
The American Legion post, which has stood at 620 Atlantic Ave. since 1926, is up for sale. And if the new buyer doesn’t agree to let the Legion lease the space, the post could be on the move for the first time in more than 80 years.
Collingswood’s American Legion faces a numbers game that increasingly works against the group.
“The post is losing paid members. We’re down to about 60,” said Ken Landis, an American Legion member. “Net, we make about $15 a year on each dues-paying member.”
That $900 doesn’t come close to the $12,000 the Tatem-Shields post needs just to keep the lights on, the heat running and the building insured. Then there’s the upgrades the building needs—better handicapped access, a new boiler, air-conditioning and more—that Landis estimates will run “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
At the post’s Oct. 10 meeting, the treasurer announced the organization is short $10,000 for the upcoming budget.
Perhaps the Legion could overcome those obstacles, but there is a bigger trend at play.
“Among the post members, there are a few of us who are of the Vietnam era. Most served in Korea or World War II,” Landis said. “I’m 68, and I’m known as the ‘kid’ of the group.”
Returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan simply aren’t joining Tatem-Shields. And with the average World War II veteran in his late 80s, time is working against the post.
“The simple fact is, we’re down to no money,” Landis said. “That’s the reality, those are the economics. This is the last thing we wanted, but we didn’t see a choice in this. Unless something changes, we need to sell the building.”
Community Gathering Place That Can’t Keep Pace
Like so many others in Collingswood, Landis spent his boyhood gathering at the American Legion post for coed dances or to shoot pool in the basement.
It’s where friends worked up the nerve to ask a girl to dance for the first time and where scouting troops met. Tatem-Shields members spearheaded community celebrations, like the Fourth of July festivities and the town’s bicentennial commemoration.
Landis’ military service, family, law school and involvement in a myriad of other community groups pulled him away from the Tatem-Shields Post. Ten years ago, his former scoutmaster, Ralph Daugherty, approached him about joining the American Legion.
“It was a dramatic change,” Landis recalled of returning. “You didn’t have the dances. The number of members had dwindled. They weren’t organizing as many events.” The post’s financial troubles had already started as well.
Some things, though, remained the same.
“The Legion was still a gathering place for veterans and people who served their country over and above what the average citizen has done,” Landis said. “Some of these guys were wounded in battle. Some of these guys have wounds we’ll never see.
“All of them are of the highest caliber. You won’t find a place with more of America’s greatest group of people.”
With the financial writing on the wall, Tatem-Shields members tried different revitalization approaches. The post inquired about Collingswood establishing a long-term lease of the building for community functions, much like the town did for the —no dice.
The group approached other nonprofits about partnerships, but they seemed to “want to run the show,” Landis said. “It didn’t work.” The group considered opening a bar at the location, as posts with them tend to perform better financially, but there wasn’t enough money for a manager and staff. Nothing was coming to fruition.
For Sale Sign Goes Up. Now What?
Now, unless something unexpected happens, the post won’t have its home anymore. The building went up for sale in mid-summer, listed with Joe Riggs of Prudential, Fox and Roach for $450,000. But in the sluggish economy, Landis said it could be awhile before the building sells.
“It’s a building with a unique design,” Riggs said of the post, featuring two floors, the bowling lanes, an auditorium and an upstairs apartment. “Properties that are unique need unique buyers.”
Financing is there for groups that can prove a solid financial history, Riggs said, and who can show steady revenue streams.
But, the Tatem-Shields post isn’t the only local group in a similar bind and looking to offload its biggest asset. In Haddon Heights, the Masonic Lodge also is up for sale—for less money, although without parking—and Landis knows that represents competition for prospective buyers.
Plus, American Legion membership is generally falling nationwide, possibly forcing other posts into the same situation over time; a representative for the New Jersey American Legion did not return messages.
So, what’s the ideal outcome for Tatem-Shields?
“I’m of a couple of minds,” Landis said. “Ideally, some social organization with deep pockets could take over the building, and give us a place to have a home, so we’d still have a little piece of the pie.”
Or, the building could sell and Legion would get a huge influx of cash. But not only would they be without a headquarters, Collingswood could lose a piece of its history.
“New owners could always tear down the building and put up four townhomes,” Landis said with a visible wince. “That’s what this is zoned for.”
Either way, American Legion Tatem-Shields Post No. 17 is not disbanding.
“There’s a great deal of unhappiness on my part, on all our parts, about the financial situation,” Landis said. “We don’t know exactly what the future holds or where we’ll be, but we do know one thing—the post isn’t ending.”