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Crowds turn out to bid farewell to Lakeville VFW club

By Frederick Melo, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 03--Without a trace of irony or hesitation, bartender Chad Olson summed up the clientele at the Lakeville Veterans of Foreign Wars bar in a word. "Old," he said. "And by about eight o'clock, nine o'clock, this place is a ghost town."

The bittersweet exception arrived Saturday night, when dozens of well-wishers crowded Lakeville VFW Post 210 to say goodbye to the fraternal organization's 50-year-old bar and club, which is being sold.

The building, which opened in November 1964, celebrated its final night in the company of military veterans of all ages and their families.

In the varied words of bar patrons, Lakeville's oldest dive bar fell victim to changing national demographics, rising property taxes, the harried reality of working families or a lack of karaoke.

Post Cmdr. Randy Pronschinske said the bar had long ago stopped generating the profits necessary to support the post's student scholarships and other charitable activities.

"The bar and the club are really designed to make a profit, to give to the post, to give to worthy causes," he said. "It's been a long time since it's done that -- at least 10 years."

A new owner has spoken of converting the site into a restaurant or community center. A sale closing is scheduled for Aug. 13.

Sitting on her boyfriend's lap by the crowded bar, Gwen Gephart recalled Saturday lunches with her mom, who raised 11 kids in and around the VFW. The cook's name was Blanche, and they ate well.

"It was the best place to eat, the best food. And everything was good," said Gephart, motioning with hands that betrayed a few wrinkles. "It's very sad, because at my age, the whole town is changing, and nothing is the same anymore."

The post itself dates back to 1919 and maintains 273 dues-paying members, down from a high of about 425 in the 1980s, VFW officer Dave Fries said.

Members will continue to convene at the city-owned Lakeville Heritage Center, along with other nonprofits, but without the financial challenge of keeping the bar afloat. The post donated $1,200 in student scholarships this year.

"Our scholarships will be bigger and better next year," Pronschinske said. "We'll have money, because we didn't wait until we were upside down. We'll walk away with a fair amount of equity."

On Saturday, some patrons wondered if more couldn't have been done to attract the younger set and keep the bar alive.

At the James Ballentine Post 246 in Uptown Minneapolis, karaoke helps draws a healthy mix of older vets and youthful patrons from the neighborhood, where the population is booming. A consolidated post in South St. Paul offers karaoke and live bands.

Nate Vonguten, 31, was an occasional patron at the Lakeville VFW. "It's a little bit more calm and relaxed here," he said, pointing to the larger Babe's Music Bar down Holyoke Avenue. "I used to come here a lot on Wednesdays for wing nights. That drew in a younger crowd."

Bartender Paul Aksteter said city ordinances require the Lakeville post to maintain a kitchen and serve food, another factor that hurt rather than helped the business in its final years.

Roy Bressler recalled trying to fit into the club when he returned as a young man from the Vietnam War. The veterans of World War II and Korea eyed him as an outsider, he recalled. "It took a long time to get accepted," said Bressler, wearing his full VFW regalia.

He doubted the 20-somethings returning from Iraq or Afghanistan today would go through the same ordeal. Many of those young men and women have children of their own, he said, and with mom and dad both working, they have little interest spending what little free time they have taking attendance at a veterans' organization.

Pronschinske said Lakeville has kept residential property taxes relatively low by increasing taxes on businesses. The bar paid $1,100 a month in property taxes and $1,200 a month in insurance, he said.

"Before I even turn on a light switch, I have to come up with $2,300. You can only raise prices so much," Pronschinske said.

"Most people understand, but are sad," he said. "Of course, with some it's anger, not necessarily at me, but at the situation. The trick is to keep your post open, and keep your post alive. We need to stay on mission of helping veterans."

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.

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(c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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