Friday, June 23, 2017 This Week's Paper

Elks have big plans for new lodge

Lost in the chatter about Walmart’s plans for the Elks Lodge site on Union Avenue has been a basic question: what happens to the Elks once the property formally changes hands?

The quick answer is “a bunch.”

Tacoma Elks Lodge #174 officials have permits in hand to start a $6 million construction effort to replace the nearby Allenmore Golf Course Clubhouse with a magnet restaurant that will be open to the public with separate lodge facilities for members only.

“We will be paying for all of that with cash and still have millions of dollars left to put in the bank,” Elks Chief Operating Officer Ron Forest said.

While the actual price tag of the site is confidential, the assessed value of the parcels involved put the deal at about $15 million. Real estate experts not involved in the purchase ballpark the same figure.

The all-cash sale of the 18-acre Elks Lodge site to a developer, who has a deal in the works for a Walmart superstore, is set for the end of the month. If that plan dies, there are other interested buyers in a line for dibs on the property.

“We have been trying to sell this property for four years,” Forest said. “We had two deals already fall through. But now, we know this is sold.”

The sale sets a host of changes in motion. The non-profit Elks Lodge will be a tenant of the for-profit Elks Allenmore, Inc., which operates the 120-acre golf course and clubhouse. The joint venture will add public amenities and rental spaces to the community while getting the fraternal organization out of the money pit that is the current lodge building.

Built in 1967, the 100,000-square-foot lodge has an Olympic-size swimming pool, an eight-lane bowling alley, a 1,000-seat theater and a 400-seat music venue. The pool was drained years ago to save the some $6,000 a month required to maintain it. The bowling alley has been converted into a bocce ball court. The 1,000-seat meeting hall now averages about 60 attendees during Elk Lodge meetings. The restaurants and stage remain largely empty except for special events on Friday and Saturday nights. Food is now catered.

“I remember a time when you couldn’t get a table here as a member if you didn’t have a reservation,” Forest said.

The lodge, like many fraternal organizations around the world, has been losing members for decades. At its peak in the 1960s, the lodge had 12,000 members. That membership fell to about 9,500 by the time Forest was the exalted ruler of the Tacoma lodge in the early 1990s. Current membership of the 121-year-old lodge is about 2,000.

The numbers just cannot support the expenses of a large, aging building. About half of the $180 annual dues members pay goes just to cover the property taxes for the site, for example. Rental of the meeting rooms and events cover much of the operating costs, but those expenses do not leave much for charitable spending.

“We can do a lot more once we don’t have all of those expenses,” Forest said.

The Elks supports children’s and veterans efforts through donations by members, direct programs and volunteer efforts. Total charitable spending and volunteer time totals about $1 million a year in the greater Tacoma area.

“We gave away $40,000 is scholarships last year,” Forest said. “Everyone who applied got something, and we still had money left over. Not enough people applied. A lot of people just don’t know about us and the things we do. We are lousy at marketing ourselves, but if we disappeared there would be a massive hole in community services funding in Tacoma.”

Downsizing to a 30,000-square-foot facility with new amenities and revenue opportunities translates into more Elks dollars going to charitable efforts in the future rather than to paying the taxes and repair bills on the current building. The move also could mean a boost in membership since golfers could get unlimited golf for a year for $1,200 if they are Elks members once the new facility opens. Updated gym, restaurant and other amenities could also draw members who visit the pro shop or restaurant but then see the benefits of Elks membership such as use of the gym, billiards room and racquetball courts.

“I think people are going to say ‘wow’ when they see what we are doing,” Forest said.

The new location is set to be open by this time next year.

“A lot of people just don’t know about us and the things we do. We are lousy at marketing ourselves, but if we disappeared there would be a massive hole in community services funding in Tacoma.”

Elks Chief Operating Officer Ron Forest