Back from the brink
By Jason Miller
The Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie #1444 has been in Concrete for 109 years. But last year, the organization’s illustrious tradition almost came to an ignoble end.
During the two decades leading to that almost fateful moment, the club leaked money like a sieve, said trustee Rich Post, who joined the aerie six months ago.
“A lot of the old trustees said we were throwing money into an open pit,” said Post. “Bartenders were pouring overly stiff drinks. Donation jars were untended. Members were handing out free food. Everybody wanted to pay themselves.”
Fellow trustee and four-year member Garry LaJoye is even more blunt: “People had been robbing this place for the past 20 years. Every trustee they had wanted to spend money, not put it back into the building. One thing led to another and soon they couldn’t pay the bills.”
The situation came to a head in August 2010, when former trustee Mike Kult called for the aerie’s two adjoining buildings to close their doors. They might have stayed closed, had it not been for LaJoye and former trustee Eric Jass, who decided to get FOE’s corporate headquarters involved and get the local aerie back on track.
Andy Kollar, the state representative for the Eagles’ Grand Aerie (corporate headquarters) got involved. LaJoye and Jass set to work, with Kollar keeping them accountable.
“He made sure everything was on track, that we were being responsible with the money,” said LaJoye.
The aerie secured a $22,000 loan with Summit Bank, on top of an existing $20,000 loan. The aerie’s doors stayed closed for three months while they paid off creditors with the loan, then reopened in November 2010.
Since the aerie opened its doors again, its recovery has been nothing short of amazing. It had taken financial and emotional hits; Jass and LaJoye knew they needed to address both.
Jass handled the finances, trimming the fat from every area of operation he could find. He switched the aerie’s 10-yard waste receptacle to a 5-yard one. He cancelled the building’s long-distance service. He shut off the water in the unused building. The aerie changed its gambling license from a Class C, which cost the aerie $2,000 per year, to a Class A, at $600 per year. They stopped leaving the lights and heat on at night. They installed security cameras to address loss prevention. And they decided how much liquor belonged in a shot glass, then told the bartenders to stick to that amount.
When the aerie closed, nobody contacted any of its vendors or utilities, so Jass and LaJoye had a stack of bills to deal with right out of the starting gate.
Members joined in the battle to save the aerie. Rick Neumann, a licensed plumber and HVAC worker, donated his time to address any work that required his expertise. Gary Johnson and LaJoye’s wife, Lisa, continue to volunteer their time as secretaries for the aerie and the Eagles Auxiliary, respectively. Johnson cooks as a volunteer too.
Garry LaJoye and Gary Johnson sat down to rally the troops. Johnson wrote a letter for LaJoye to send to all members, urging people to come back and volunteer. The aerie membership currently stands at 170 men and 67 women on the Auxiliary.
Jass has since moved out of the area and LaJoye has joined forces with Rich Post. The two are dedicated to running the aerie like a business, which has brought some grumbling from the members. Not all of their decisions have been popular.
“I got rid of some people because they were bad for the club,” said LaJoye, who laid off the bar manager to save that position’s $10-per-hour pay. Now the aerie has volunteer bartenders. “The whole organization is volunteer,” said LaJoye.
The aerie’s penny-pinching paid off: In about a year, that pair of loans that totaled $42,000 has been paid off.
Part of the community
LaJoye and Post have big plans for the aerie. It will remain as a gathering place for members, but they want to stitch it back into the fabric of the community.
“We want to turn the Concrete Eagles back into a community club,” said Post.
To that end, the aerie allows non-members to enjoy dinner there when a member signs them in. And the trustees have begun transforming the basement of the east building into a youth center for Concrete youth ages 12 to 18. Post said he became an Eagles trustee primarily to bring back the youth center the aerie had many years ago, and he’s already put his money where his mouth is.
“It’s not going to be a place for kids to hang out and loiter,” he said. “I want it to be a stepping stone for their lives.”
Post plans to host a monthly job fair and bring in military recruiters. He’ll line up help for students to get their GED. He wants two computer terminals for supervised Internet access, so kids can track WorkSource offerings. The aerie hosted a moonlight dance Oct. 29, and Post also wants it to serve as a home base for youth to connect with community needs. If they make a little money, good.
“We’ll help our elderly with yard work. We’ll shovel snow. We’ll stack firewood. The kids in Concrete are super-bright. They need as much support as they can get,” he said.