Taxes prove too much for VFW Post 323 in Oak Park Heights

The public bar at the Greeder-Hinds-Comfort VFW Post 323 used to be constantly full (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

The public bar at the Greeder-Hinds-Comfort VFW Post 323 used to be constantly full (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

This weekend could mark the end of an era for the Greeder-Hinds-Comfort VFW Post 323 in Oak Park Heights.

When it came to a choice between selling its building or forfeiting the building in lieu of taxes, the post chose to sell. It is putting its’ building and the contents up for auction at 11 a.m. Saturday.

“As a post, we can’t support the building anymore,” Quartermaster Jim Wright, of Stillwater, said. “Our membership’s down to a point we can’t support it.”

Chartered Feb. 1, 1920, the post was the 323rd in the nation, as indicated by its number. It has operated from its current location at 5880 Omaha Ave. N. since 1974, according to Wright.

Membership at the post is now slightly less than 300. Like other VFW posts, Post 323 has seen its members age, with few new veterans joining to replace them.

Many veterans of the war in Iraq belong to the National Guard and returned home to busy lives and careers and don’t have time to commit to a VFW post, Wright said.

When the post opened the building in 1974, the private bar and public bar were often both full, Wright said, and the banquet hall was rented frequently. Despite its seating capacity of 350, he said, the hall is now rented only about once a month, and the private bar is rarely used.

Because of the national organization’s bylaws, the post can’t advertise itself as being open to the general public. So as membership and use dwindle, so does revenue.

Taxes, on the other hand, don’t.

“The state of Minnesota has never granted tax-exempt status to veterans organizations,” Wright said.

As a 501(c)19 nonprofit veterans organization, the post is exempt from paying federal tax on its income, but Wright said it must still pay most normal sales taxes and property taxes, and it can no longer afford to do so.

Wright thinks the group should receive more tax breaks because, he says, the post is a lot more than “a bunch of old veterans sitting around drinking beer and telling war stories.”

“It’s a veterans organization that prides itself in service to veterans and community service,” he said.

Post 323 supports school athletics programs, a Cub Scouts troop, a Girl Scouts troop and more.

Although there have been attempts to change state law related to veterans organizations, Wright said, all failed, and that has left Post 323 in a tough spot.

According to Wright, members are having difficulty accepting the decision to sell.

“It’s a big change,” he said. “There’s resistance within the post. … It’s a hard thing for them to see it go, but if we don’t sell, we’ll lose it … come April.”

For the past three years the post has had the building on the market with no success. It hopes the auction will generate enough cash to allow the post to move into another home.

“We’re looking for a smaller facility, even if it’s just a store front,” Wright said.

It probably won’t be a bar, but the post needs somewhere to conduct meetings and use as a base of operations, and Wright hopes it will be in Stillwater proper, where it used to be.

“We don’t want to surrender our charter,” Wright said. “We want to keep that going. It’s to the benefit of the community and our members if we can keep that going.”

Contact Jonathan Young at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com

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