Local Elks Lodge recruiting younger members

Phil Baker is shown in the lodge’s bar at 516 Fourth St. The Elks sold the lodge to the City of Brookings in 2004 and now rents back from the city the space it occupies. Baker is spearheading efforts to revitalize the lodge and attract new members.

Like many of its 1,780 counterparts across the nation, Brookings Lodge No. 1490 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), or just “Elks,” continues to see its membership decline. Several lodges in South Dakota have shut their doors, including one in nearby Madison.

Phil Baker, exalted ruler and a member of the Brookings Elks for about 40 years, said the lodge has 147 members; that’s down from about 700 in the days when the lodge had a full-service restaurant that was a dining destination for the general public of the Brookings area.

The downward spiral in membership – and money – began in the days after Feb. 27. 2004, when the Elks sold the building to the city of Brookings for about $500,000. The lodge now has about $80,000 in its coffers. However, even before the sale, there were hints that the lodge’s glory days were behind it.

“But for some reason or other, the kitchen started losing money,” Baker explained. “Despite serving meals, it was losing money. Our count was going lower and lower, to the point where we couldn’t handle it anymore. I’m sure that was the reason for the sale.”

Today the Elks rent back from the city space in the building they once owned. (“Everything was ours, the whole thing,” Baker explained.) That rented space contains a full bar, and the Elks still hold a city-issued liquor license.

Getting younger members

While it’s unlikely the lodge will, without its own building, ever return to the glory days it once knew, Baker is spearheading an effort to bring back some of the viability it once knew, “bringing the Elks back to life.”

“We’re trying to become known,” he explained. “We’re not really well known; almost every other organization that I know of has either a luncheon or a breakfast that brings their members together. But we’re not that way.

“We need to promote the Elks. If we could promote our membership, that would help. We’d like to get some younger members.” That could be a tough job in view of declining Elks membership across the nation.

In a phone conversation with the Register, James Nichelson, chairman of the Elks past national presidents advisory committee and a spokesman for BPOE National Memorial and Headquarters in Chicago, admitted it was fair to say that Elks membership has been declining across the nation.

“So far that we’re doing an awful lot trying to show ourselves in the best light to members,” he added. “We have a lot of service-related projects and funds: youth, veterans and things like that.

“We find if we actually let people know what we’re doing, we find some folks who are interested in that kind of thing and join to be a part of the activities.

“As a result, our loss last year was one-half of 1 percent.”

Nickelson was also aware of statistics nationwide that show the Elks is just one of many service and fraternal organizations with declining membership rolls: “I’ve seen it in my church; I’ve seen it in my VFW (post); I’ve seen it in my civic organizations. It’s very difficult for folks now to be members of things. They’re not joiners anymore.”

To help reduce that trend, “each lodge is encouraged to undertake a community activity that gets them out in the community, that gets them active and shows the community what kind of an organization we are.” However, some Elks lodges don’t survive. 

“We do lose lodges. It happens,” Nickelson said. “If they can’t maintain themselves, if their membership is so small that they can’t pay their bills, they close.

“Years ago, there were over 2,000 Elks lodges across the country; today there are 1,780, give or take a few.”

Catch-22

In a way, the Brookings lodge faces a bit of a dilemma: to become better known and possibly recruit younger members, the lodge has to have more visibility in the community, which it once had via its philanthropic activities. And that takes money.

“We used to give to almost everybody: the Boys & Girls Club, CASA, Teen Challenge,” Baker explained. “But there are so many good causes; you’ve got to be selective.

“We’re not doing as much because we can’t donate as much. We just don’t have it. We’re paying two rents.” In addition to renting the bar space, the lodge rents space in the Hawley Insurance Services Building, where a secretary performs administrative and clerical duties.

“All of our information comes out of that office,” Baker explained.

And one piece of information Baker wants to get out there is that the lodge is still alive and wants to get more active in the Brookings community: “Now open to the public Fridays at 4:30 p.m. Join us for drinks and socializing. Available to rent for parties, receptions, etc.”

For rentals, the lodge can provide a full bar, bartender and caterer for an event for up to 70 people.

Baker’s hope is that the Elks can once again have a viable presence in Brookings in keeping with its nearly century-old history here.

Lodge No. 1490 came into being in June 1924, with 66 new members. Over the years, including the tough times of the 1930s, the lodge survived and thrived, most often occupying temporary rented facilities.

In 1934, the Elks constructed their own facility and enlarged it in the 1950s and 1960s. Then in November 1988, a fire gutted much of the building’s upper level, forcing members into temporary facilities in the former Townhouse Supper Club on South Main.

Following that period, the present lodge was built at 516 Fourth St. and dedicated and opened for business in September 1990. It had a banquet room that could seat 250 people; a dining room that could seat 70 people; a small room to accommodate meetings and small banquets up to 28 people; and the bar/cocktail lounge that could seat up to 90.

For additional information about the Elks, contact Phil Baker at 691-4553.

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.

By: John Kubal, The Brookings Register

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