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Middlebury VFW faces challenge

MIDDLEBURY — Faced with a $30,000 budget shortfall and declining membership, Middlebury Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 7823 officials said they may soon have to sell the organization’s club headquarters and event hall at 530 Exchange St. and meet elsewhere.
“A decision has to be made,” Post 7823 Commander Kenley Hallock said about the future of the VFW’s Exchange Street property. “There is not enough revenue.”
Post 7823 was chartered in 1946, spearheaded by Middlebury-area veterans returning from World War II. Veterans of the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection established the national VFW back in 1899 as a means of lobbying for benefits and health care for soldiers who served honorably in overseas conflict. The VFW grew to more than 2.8 million members affiliated with thousands of individual chapters throughout the country. The chapters not only lobby for veterans’ causes, but also contribute to community charities.
Post 7823 has bankrolled some substantial community projects, including renovations to Middlebury’s Cannon Park and repairs to the Civil War monument on Merchants Row.
But the ranks of the VFW nationwide have been on the decline, largely as a result of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans passing away. This demographic reality has hit home with Post 7823.
Ron Browe, quartermaster for Post 7823, said the Middlebury VFW currently has 227 members — around half the membership it had two decades ago. Most of the 227 aren’t very active with the organization, Browe noted. Some have moved away from the area, but have decided to maintain their Post 7823 affiliation.
“We are coming into that same realm of age; it’s a fact of life,” Hallock said. “Without the support of the younger vets, it could be a rather bleak future for the VFW.”
Post 7823 members do reach out to younger veterans returning from combat in the Middle East. But Browe said many of those veterans don’t seem to have an interest in joining the VFW and are either gravitating toward other service organizations or simply do not have the time in this economic climate requiring two breadwinners per family.
“It’s almost like we’ve become shunned,” Hallock said.
“We get some who say they’ll join, but we never see them again,” Browe added.
Addison County is also home to American Legion posts in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes. Veterans eligible for VFW membership are automatically eligible for Legion membership. Not all veterans can qualify for entry into the VFW. The Eagles Club in Vergennes also draws service-minded individuals. Browe said the VFW competes with these other clubs for prospective members and too often comes up short.
Post 7823 members first began meeting at a spot off Bakery Lane. They moved into their 100-feet-by-60-feet headquarters on 4.4 acres off Exchange Street in December of 1990. It includes a club area with a bar, and a large hall that is used for VFW functions and is periodically rented out for private functions. Post 7823 has also made it available for free, throughout the years, for such activities as monthly Red Cross blood drawings and the Meals on Wheels-related dinners.
Free events and reasonable — some might say underpriced — rental fees have added to Post 7823’s financial woes, Browe acknowledged. It currently costs between $100 and $175 to rent the hall for an event. The free and low rental fees do not allow the Middlebury VFW to recoup the custodial/utility costs for the hall, Browe said. Middlebury VFW has five full- and part-time employees.
Post 7823 last year regretfully stopped offering the use of the hall for the blood drawings due to financial pressures.
And raising the fees for private functions — such as wedding receptions — doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“The membership doesn’t want to increase the rental fee,” Browe said.
VFW membership fees are modest and do not substantially affect the organization’s financial bottom line. Members pay annual dues of $35. They also have the option of paying for a lifetime membership, which is calculated based on the age of the member. A new member aged 31-40 is assessed $410, while a member aged 81 and older is assessed $170.
Browe called the VFW dues “far less than any other organization.”
Post 7823 does get some revenues from selling break-open tickets, money that the organization uses to help defray its operating expenses and for donations to local charitable causes.
But with a declining membership, a $30,000 shortfall and limited revenues, Post 7823 is considering selling its 530 Exchange St. property to clear up its debts and move forward with meetings at some other local venue. A majority of the 27 members who gathered on July 13 for the post’s monthly meeting decided to keep the facility running for another month and then revisit the issue.
“They don’t want to give it up yet,” Browe said.
But the group realizes it might not have a choice.
If a sale does happen, members will want to make sure the on-site veterans’ memory wall is preserved.
Efforts to reach Vermont VFW leaders for this story were unsuccessful, as they were attending the organization’s national convention in St. Louis, Mo.
Bit it’s clear other state VFWs are also confronting similar tough times.
Mitch Melton is quartermaster of VFW Post 758 in St. Albans. When he first joined Post 758 a few years ago, it had more than 400 members. It now has 303 on its roster, according to Melton.
“A lot have passed away,” he said of the decline in membership. “We probably pick up three or four (new members) per year. We can’t seem to attract the younger generations.”
Post 758 has a canteen and meeting hall. But like the Middlebury VFW, Post 758 members don’t charge a lot to people who rent their hall for private functions.
“We accept donations; we don’t charge rent,” Melton said.
“We’re fortunate to keep our heads above water,” he added of Post 758’s current financial situation. “But if a big wave comes by, we’ll be in trouble.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Post 7823, or who might be able to help the organization, can call 388-9468.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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