“It’s not something we are happy about, but things being the way they are with the economy and the loss of members and the inability it seems to attract younger members, we are going to have to shut down the lodge at the end of July,” said Buzz Butler, its exalted ruler, who oversees the local Elks trustees.
“The Lehigh Lodge of the Elks have met in Lehigh since 1979 when it began with less than a hundred members,” Butler said.
Today, there are around 193 members, Butler said, but they are older with many past 60 and the Lodge is unable to get new members and to get the community to support the activities of the Elks.
There are Elks lodges in Fort Myers, North Fort Myers and in Cape Coral, he said, but the local group is merging with the one in Fort Myers, but Butler says he is not optimistic that the members will drive the distance of 22 to 23 miles for meetings.
“We hate to disband as we have done so many good things for the community and especially the youth of Lehigh, but we have reached a point where we just can’t remain open,” Butler said.
With the merger, the local Lodge will shut down on July 31.
Butler said the building has been listed with an area real estate firm and that he would guess the value of the building is between $300,000 and $400,000. But the members of the local Elks do not own the building.
Butler said it is owned by Grand Lodge of Elks.
What’s happening at the Elks is not uncommon in Lehigh since the economy has been in the doldrums and with the high unemployment in the community. Other service clubs and organizations are facing some of the same problems of lower membership and being unable to recruit younger members. Many, like the Elks, are holding special dinners and lunches for the public to raise money. The dues at the Lehigh Elks Lodge are $77 a year up front without any type of monthly payment plan.
Butler said for many people in Lehigh today, that is a lot of money and it may have go to for paying an electric bill, utility bill, house and rent payments and food.
For those who have been a member for 30 years, the annual membership dues are only $37 but Butler said with many older members passing away, the loss of revenue is very apparent.
For the past year, the Elks have been holding public events such as dinners and dances for what Butler said were fair prices for a night of good entertainment.
“But we can’t get our own membership to support us and we are unable to get the people of Lehigh to come out for these occasions even with all the publicity that has appeared in the papers,” Butler said.
He agreed that with a lot of people, dinner out at night is usually considered as attending a place such as a restaurant or a dinner club.
“We realize that and because of that, we have not been able to raise enough money now to meet our expenses. We do not have a choice but to leave the building and merge with the Fort Myers lodge,” Butler said.
He explained that members didn’t want to give up their association with the Elks. If they disbanded, it may take a long time to get back into the national organization.
“If things improve over the years ahead, we want to be able to reopen at some other location in Lehigh and continue the work we have done,” Butler said.
The Ladies of the Elks, who have provided so much help to the membership, won’t be able to merge, Butler said, since the Fort Myers lodge doesn’t have a woman’s auxiliary.
The Lodge on Joel Blvd. is a large building and the Elks have leased it out on several occasions over the years but even that business has also dropped off, he said.
He noted that it takes $3,500 a month to keep the lodge open and Butler says with the dues and the proceeds from the little attended events, it’s impossible to keep the operation going.
And of the 194 members, he said maybe half are active anyway.
“I’m sure that 65 percent of our members are senior citizens, and by that I mean well over 60 in many cases,” he said.
At one time, Butler said, the highest membership that he can come up with was at around 600. That may have been before he joined the local Elks lodge 17 years ago.
He said the building was in good shape and had two areas where events could take place at the same time. And it has kitchen facilities for dinners, too.
“It would be ideal for a church with a little changing of the inside,” he said.
“Many of us are sad that we have to leave the building, but the way things are, we just can’t keep going … and I’m afraid like I said, that a lot of the members won’t drive to Fort Myers, many of them due to their age.
Some may decide to go to North Fort Myers, Butler said he has been told. Others may just end their relationship with the Elks.
“It’s all a terrible thing because the Elks Lodge has been a great organization and its people have worked hard to help the community, but really in the end the community didn’t come out and help to support us.
“We just can’t make it with the small money we make on dinners and dances,” he said.
The decision to shut down was made by the five trustees of the Elks Lodge with help in making the decision coming from Butler.
“It’s sad, but we’re saying good-bye on the last day of this month,” Butler said.