CHATHAM — In the faded photographs on the walls and on the plaques listing names of past members and commanders, the Brown-James-Buck VFW Post holds history.
“We're stewards,” Operations Manager Carl Rostek said. “We refuse to let this place go under.”
But the building on George Ryder Road isn't a museum. For nearly 60 years, it's been a refuge for local veterans as well as an important community resource, providing affordable space for weddings, funerals and community dinners. It's been home to Little League games and a headquarters for worthy patriotic programs that honor servicemen and women, past and present. And now, faced with financial challenges, it's turning to the public for help.
First to answer that call has been the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, which met with the leaders of the post and will be helping raise funds and awareness about the VFW's needs. The goal is to restore the post to financial self-sufficiency by expanding the function room and modernizing other parts of the building.
“I turn away a lot of weddings,” Rostek said. Most clients are looking for space for 150 to 160 guests, and the current function room can comfortably accommodate about half that number. “If we had one function every week, we could do very well,” he said. Because it is an affordable alternative to more expensive resorts and restaurants, the VFW's conference space is an important resource for locals.
Quartermaster Don Devine said the property has plenty of ongoing expenses, from the costly liquor liability insurance to smaller facilities needs, like the re-seeding of the Little League field last year, which cost more than $8,000. It became clear that they'd need additional resources when the town issued orders to connect the property to the sewer system by 2017, a significant expense.
“Then the roof started to leak,” Devine said. “We can handle some of the problems,” he said, but when it comes to big capital expenses, the VFW needs support from the community. “And we're not afraid to say it,” he said. All told, the improvements to the building – including new siding and an elevator – are estimated to cost around $200,000. Devine met recently with the chamber of commerce board and asked for their help.
“They've been terrific,” Devine said. Chamber Executive Director Lisa Franz is helping spread the word about the VFW post's challenges, and has created a new website, www.VFWChatham.org. The board is helping organize a “Raise the Roof” event at the VFW scheduled for Friday, Nov. 11. The event will include a buffet dinner and music for dancing, and will kick off the capital campaign.
Devine and the other post leaders have taken another important step: securing the group's status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which allows them to receive tax-deductible donations. That opens the door to additional development opportunities in the future.
“The VFW Post in Chatham is a living monument to veterans in Chatham and all Cape Cod,” Chamber President Mike Giorgio said. “We value all that they have done and feel it is everyone's duty to help this organization continue on,” he said. Business leaders hope to spur more interest and community involvement that will ultimately help the post to be financially sustainable.
“We look forward to a long and productive relationship with Chatham's VFW Post, and helping them however we can in the future,” chamber Treasurer Scott Hamilton said.
Devine said he and the post's other leaders have drafted a “sharp” business plan that begins by cutting costs. The operation has shaved its expenses by 25 percent so far and will continue to do so; it also obtained an energy audit by Cape Light Compact which installed $13,000 in energy-efficient fixtures. Depending on the costs and any incentives, the post may consider some kind of rooftop solar installation when they re-shingle the roof, Devine said.
Donated funds will be used to make important capital improvements that allow more bookings for the function room, and that revenue will support operations and additional capital needs. But part of the process will involve making sure the public feels welcome at the VFW.
“We have a 'private membership' aura,” he said. In fact, the bar is open to the public as long as they sign the guest book.
“It's comfortable. It's a friendly bar,” Rostek said. The post also sponsors regular fish fries and chicken dinners.
“The meals are terrific,” Devine said.
There are some VFW members who question why the improvements need to be made and why the post needs to change the way it operates.
“There are always the naysayers,” he said. But he and Rostek say they don't want to see Chatham's post go the way of the post in Hyannis, which was forced to sell its building. Many VFW posts have declining enrollment.
“We're reaching out to younger veterans,” Devine said. While the key to the post's financial viability is its function business, it remains true to its mission of serving veterans. The post continues to provide scholarships to local high school students and contributes each year to the Cape Cod Cares for the Troops drive. There's the annual poppy drive carried out with the American Legion, and every Memorial Day, the post provides more than 700 flags to be placed on the graves of local veterans. This year, the post is taking part in the “Wreaths Across America” program, placing holiday wreaths on veterans' graves.
To contribute to the Brown-James-Buck VFW Post, send a tax-deductible contribution to 150 George Ryder Rd., Chatham, MA 02633. Watch for additional details on the “Raise the Roof” event and other fundraisers.