Tsawwassen Legion battles to stay relevant

Located in a commercial complex on 56th Street, the Tsawwassen Legion has been around for a quarter century, but has had a tough go the past several years due to a declining membership and volunteer base.

Things got to the point where the branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, despite continuing to be a strong fundraiser for local organizations, was looking at closing its doors for good in late 2017 before an anonymous donor stepped forward and provided enough for it to stay afloat for a while longer.

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It’s been more than a year since that lifeline and the Tsawwassen Legion continues its battle to stay relevant.

“The bar is bringing in revenue but we’d like more people to come down and check us out. It’s certainly a good place to hang out,” said former president Gary Bain in a recent interview.

 

gary bain
Former Tsawwassen Legion president Gary Bain. - photo by Sandor Gyarmati

 

What the Tsawwassen branch has experienced isn’t unique as Royal Canadian Legion branches across the country face the consequences of an aging membership. Many have closed their doors because Royal Canadian Legion membership is reportedly half what it was 30 years ago. More than half of those who remain are over 65, something Bain noted has to change.

Another challenge is that older members and volunteers who frequented the Tsawwassen branch have moved away, cashing in the equity in their single-family homes and downsizing in other communities, explained Bain.

Legions tried to adapt by making their memberships and facilities open to the public, but Bain explained it’s important they not be seen as just an old person’s club.

The added strain for the Tsawwassen Legion is that it doesn’t own its own premises, having to rent its facility in Century Square.

“We continue to struggle financially each month to maintain our not-for-profit premises, with the bulk of our net revenue consumed by the substantial commercial rent to Century Group. We depend heavily on the volunteer efforts of our members and executive for the daily operations of the branch,” Bain wrote in a letter to the city as part of the Legion’s annual request for tax exemption.

Now closed Mondays and Tuesdays as a cost-cutting measure, the Tsawwassen branch a few years ago added a stage and top-notch sound system, which makes it the best music venue in Delta and has helped attract crowds wanting to see various acts.

However, it needs to do more to bring in a younger crowd, said Bain. The recent addition of equipment to provide a well-functioning kitchen should help, but now it’s a matter of finding enough volunteers to work it more often, he added.

Excited about the potential of the venue, new president Bill Belsey said it’s not doom and gloom for the branch as it explores new ideas. He said it’s important for the Tsawwassen Legion to market itself and get the word out how it’s a great place to have some fun, something a little different, even considered cool, than the usual bars.

“We’ve looked at things like the punk band which does a great job bringing the younger crowd in. We make that a special occasion because we allow them to bring the kids in, so we make sure we have food available to meet the liquor regulations. We have a band from each high school who have come in and played that stage and they just love it. So, you have to build on those kinds of arrangements and it’s a real challenge. I don’t think there’s any one magic solution,” said Belsey.

 

legion
The Tsawwassen Legion, which has been around for a quarter century, is suffering from an aging membership like many other branches across the country. - file photo

 

“You know, for the size of this place, the stage that we’ve got, the seating capacity, you’d have to go into Richmond to find this kind of facility. We’ve got bands wanting to come in and some of them have a really good following. One band that came in, it was just nuts in here. It brings in a different crowd and that’s what we need,” he added.

Belsey admitted the Legion probably didn’t have the vision or promotional zeal it should have had such as doing something as simple as selling bottles of wine, which it does now.

Noting they’ve got the cheapest beer in town, which is just one reason to come by, Belsey said they’re looking at a few other promotions and ideas, including having more local organizations and clubs use the venue as a gathering place, to encourage more people to check it out as well as sign up as members.

Also important, not only for the Tsawwassen branch but other branches across the province and country, is to keep in touch with each other and share ideas, he said.

Belsey noted the Tsawwassen Legion has still managed to raise well over $200,000 over the past five years for various charities and groups, ranging from the Delta Hospital Foundation to the Delta Police Pipe Band. Legion regulations prevent the branch from using any proceeds from gaming activities or the annual poopy drive toward operational costs. 

While the Tsawwassen branch looks to give itself a boost, things are going swimmingly for the Ladner Legion, located in Ladner Village, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year. Having around 1,000 members, Branch 61 has been around so long it’s become not only an important part the community but also engrained within local families with generations old and young being members, said president Al Ridgway.

The Ladner Legion, which received a Long-term Contribution Award from the City of Delta, is very much out there in the community, Ridgway said.

“We’re pretty lucky with our location and we have a lot of dedicated volunteers, but we’ve also always had an open door and we’ve tried to adapt as much as we can,” he added.

As far as the Tsawwassen Legion, it’s looking for anyone interested in volunteering or becoming a member, but also encourages people just to come down and have a drink in a relaxed atmosphere, said Belsey. For more information, visit Tsawwassen Legion #289 on Facebook or call 604-943-0232.

For more information on the Ladner Legion, call 604-946-4611 or visit https://rcl61.com.

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