The former Whiskey River is back on the market after a Monday night vote from the members of the William R. Witty American Legion Post 37.
The vote, with three dissenting votes out of about 100 members of the Legion, Legion Auxiliary Unit 37 and Sons of the American Legion Squadron 37, concurred with the recommendation of a feasibility study by the Region Nine Development Commission. That study showed that, at a break-even point for bars and restaurants of $200 to $300 per square foot, the Legion would need to bring in $1.8 million, or at least $1.2 million if staffed entirely by volunteers to operate the Whiskey River site.
Nicollet County Bank gave the property to the Legion at the end of 2018. The Legion organized a gift committee to consider its use, of which Shawn Schloesser was appointed chairman.
“The findings were quite clear,” Schloesser said. “The gift was wonderful, but it is far too big and would be far too expensive for us to run, so the best alternative would be to sell it.”
The feasibility study is posted on the Legion’s website and a copy was available at the post. It was apparent, Arpin and Schloesser said, that many members of the Legion, Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion had read the document.
“The tone among membership changed,” Schloesser said. “Their wishes and desires — everything quieted down. The Legion has done a good thing by hiring Region Nine and getting an unbiased, professionally prepared study.”
For Region Nine, it was a quick turnaround: less than 90 days on a study that would typically take six months.
“We were able to gather quantitative and qualitative data that led to three recommendations,” said Nicole Griensewic Mickelson, executive director. “By no means were we going to make the decision.”
She said she appreciated the Legion reaching out.
“Our team was excited about the project,” Griensewic Mickelson said. “I’m glad we were able to expedite it and meet the Legion’s timeline.”
The analysis included conversations with local real estate agents that gave a target window of $260,000 to $300,000 for a sales price.
Employed by then-Rep. Tim Walz, Schloesser immediately recommended Region Nine for an unbiased evaluation of options. About a month later, he was employed by the commission to work on transportation issues.
“I stayed at arm’s length away,” he said. “I hadn’t read it until it came to the final committee meeting.”
Arpin said the Legion has 266 members; he was not sure of the Auxiliary or Sons membership numbers. The Legion has met its membership goal for the year with three months to spare.
The Legion will entertain offers for the Whiskey River space. Part of the proceeds would be to remodel the existing Legion building. The Legion’s house committee has priority projects for building upkeep and a target of $150,000 in fundraising to make a list happen. The Legion had raised $30,000 and was looking for grant opportunities when the Whiskey River building donation happened.
Now, the gift committee will explore the options for renovations and updates at the current building.
“Any changes would have (handicapped accessible) improvements as the members are aging,” Schloesser said.
Other changes will be geared to making the Legion more appealing. Arpin said the house committee chairman has found stored items that were brought out to make the Legion look more like a service member’s club — flags, memorabilia — than a bar, which was the first look previously.
Arpin said once people come in the door, Legion members can talk about the four pillars, or purposes, of the Legion: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth.
Besides the recommendation on the space, a survey of members and interviews with local community members with no ties to the Legion showed that a culture change inside the building and membership is needed.
“A fresh coat of paint is not going to change minds,” Schloesser said. “It’s not going to make a welcoming place for the public that the public is going to want to come into.”
One new program is an American Legion Riders Club, a group of motorcycle-riding members of the Legion, Auxiliary and Sons. So far, it has 22 members and will have its first ride soon.
Under Arpin’s direction, the Legion revised its constitution, untouched since 1944, and its bylaws, which stood since 1946. Arpin said the volunteer leaders recognize the demands on families’ time.
“We have to adjust to conditions,” he said, mentioning that the Le Center Legion, for example, hosts many youth activities at the post. “We have to get everybody on board to change to the times to make the Legion more attractive to the younger veterans coming through.”
Schloesser said it was important to make the decision on the Whiskey River property and then change focus on the Legion’s direction for the future.
“We are in a whole new phase where we can plan for 10 years from now,” he said. “We’ve got this basketful of gift. How do we best invest in the future, use it for today and invest in the Legion’s four pillars?”