Elks not ready to close doors

Whether the club sells its building or keeps the property, members say the Elks will continue to function.

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WALLA WALLA - Not a lot of straw hats are making the rounds in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks annual New Year's parade these days.

The Straw Hat Parade was started by the Elks Lodge more than a century ago as a kickoff for an annual party at the clubhouse. It was known for drawing crowds of people - from those marching in the streets clad in straw hats to others watching from the sidelines. But with membership shrinking over the last two decades, a transition has taken place.

The parade that once filled the streets of downtown with characters in headpieces has dwindled to about 10 people ceremoniously carrying the lodge and American flags along the sidewalks.

It's a symbolic picture of philanthropic service clubs all over the country. As the aging population of longtime members fades, fraternal organizations have struggled to entice new and younger members to fill the gaps. In the case of the Elks, the numbers are complicated by another factor: real estate.

For more than a year, the Elks property at the corner of Rose and Palouse streets has been for sale. Listed with Coldwell Banker First Realtors for $2.95 million, the land and building have received a couple of nibbles but no buyers yet.

If in the meantime membership can grow, the building is ideal to continue the social gatherings and events for which the Elks are known.

On the other hand, the organization can't continue to maintain the building without more than the $115 annual membership fees of its supporters. So members are exploring ways to attract new members.

"We've got about 20,000 square feet of building here," said Walla Walla Elks member Heath Snider as his eyes scanned the lodge's main floor at 351 E. Rose St. "I think it has just a ton of potential."

But potential for what? Future Elks initiations, committee meetings and social gatherings? Or a future for a commercial development?

Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said the community would be a winner either way, though he's certainly made some calls to spread the word about the property's availability.

Agostini said the property - including parking for 135 vehicles on 1.6 acres and a more than 10,600-square-foot basement - is ripe for a junior department store a la Bed, Bath & Beyond or a Michaels. It's also just as perfect for a cozy high-class hotel, he said.

"The dilemma though is the club's confusion about what to do," Agostini said.

He said he believes there's still a strong need for service organizations. But the community could also benefit from new taxable retail sales if the space was used for retail development.

"Please don't make me choose," he quipped.

The current building was constructed in 1972 at a time when membership was 4,200 people strong compared to 960 now. Active members are much fewer, officials said.

Back then the building was a replacement for the Elks' five-story temple at Fourth Avenue and Alder Street that was burned in a fire.

On a side note, the fraternal organization had been such a part of the community that when the first ornate lodge was constructed, even the local power provider celebrated. Pacific Power and Light Company colored the cluster light globes on downtown streets with purple, according to a centennial history of the organization published in 1994.

As with all Elks facilities across the country, the new building on Rose Street was designed to cater to a special need in the community, explained Greg Heimgartner, the Elks current exalted ruler. In this case, it provided a restaurant at a time when Walla Walla was not known as a dining destination.

The restaurant for years served as a perk of membership, though it was secondary to the purpose of the club.

For those unfamiliar with the organization, the Elks is a more than 140-year-old fraternal order created not only to convey the principles of justice and charity and quicken the spirit of American patriotism, but to serve its community through benevolent programs.

The Walla Walla Elks Lodge - the 287th chartered lodge in the country - does this through veterans programs, youth scholarships and its offer of free physical or occupational in-home therapy for anyone birth to 21 years old. The latter is usually a surprise to most people, Heimgartner said.

The building still serves as a social gathering space. It has the biggest dance floor in town, four pool tables, a Wii gaming system, dart boards, card tables for private games and plays host to gatherings for Sunday's NFL games.

It hosts wedding receptions, public meetings, company gatherings and holiday parties. The club's New Year's Eve bash drew an estimated 100 people, Heimgartner said.

When Isaacs Avenue restaurant Mr. Ed's was damaged by fire, the Elks club served as a location to keep the restaurant going during its reconstruction.

Even this weekend, the building was the site of a fundraising event for the aviary at Pioneer Park.

But as restaurants now dot the Walla Walla landscape, the need for daily restaurant service is a thing of the past. That part of the operation was shut down in October 2009.

Fundraisers for the club before and after that time have done little to solidify its future. A place that had 12 paid employees is now run by volunteers.

What Heimgartner and Snider - both in their early 30s, both of whom had grandfathers who were Elks and both hopeful about the club's future - fear is that potential members may get the mistaken impression the club doesn't have a future.

"Regardless of whether this building is bought, the Elks club will still be around," Heimgartner said. "If it sells then we'll go some place new."

Likewise, if interest grows, investments could be made to build services for members at the space.

Heimgartner and Snider - who also meet the membership qualifying criteria of being at least 21, an American citizen and a believer in God - are hopeful that if the membership could be rebuilt then the sale of the building wouldn't have to take place. The club would have an gathering space that could become viable again.

How to build interest in an era when service clubs like theirs are losing members is the question. Whether they'll be able to do it before the club runs out of resources is another. Both are hopeful.

"I see a lot of potential for people like me," Snider said. "I want to be involved, but I want to do it on my own terms."

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