Righting the ship

It’s a transformation some would have never predicted.

Twelve months ago, the American Legion Post 46’s future looked dim – dwindling membership, buildings in need of serious repair and renovation, a struggling golf course/pro shop and finances in disarray.

But thanks to new leadership, a core group of volunteers and dedicated members, extensive outreach to the community and a shift in attitudes, the Marshalltown American Legion is experiencing a sort of renaissance these days.

“The atmosphere here is completely different than it was a year ago,” said Post Cmdr. Randy Kessler.

When he took over as commander in July of 2015, Kessler and other members of the Legion’s executive board knew the organization was in trouble.

It was shortly thereafter the news broke that an investigation had been initiated involving the financial practices of the Legion’s golf course and its former golf pro/club house manager.

That investigation was preceded by an IRS investigation and financial audit of the post’s finances which revealed an estimated $280,000 in federal withholding taxes that had not been paid to Legion employees over the course of nearly a decade.

The Marshall County Sheriff’s Office executed search warrants at the golf course club house office as well as at the residence of the former golf pro/club house manager, where law enforcement officials seized computers and other electronic equipment. That investigation remains ongoing.

Aside from the tax liability, there were other outstanding bills, creditors asking for payments and disconnect notices from the post’s electrical and insurance providers. The Marshalltown post, without question, was drowning in a sea of red.

That along with facilities that needed extensive renovation and repair, a lack of interest or awareness on the part of some members and a community, in some cases, completely unaware that the Legion even existed, would prove challenging. To right this ship would be a daunting task.

“We were in dire straits,” Kessler admits. “The State Legion knew what was going on here and they were asking me ‘What are you going to do with that post?’ If we didn’t do something, we would have had to close the doors. I was told by some state officers they would have auctioned this place off, auctioned off the golf course. They were not going to let this post drag them down.”

But Kessler and others refused to give up.

“Our primary goal is to serve veterans, and certain people had loss sight of that mission. We couldn’t give up on that,” he said.

“I was very lucky when I came in, that there were people here asking questions. They were wanting to dig in and get answers. The members who wanted to fix things – they were who I relied on when I took over. We were very, very lucky to have that group of people. We very well could have fallen into bankruptcy.”

So Kessler and the post leadership cleaned house – figuratively and literally.

New golf pro/club house manager Josh Hoglan was brought in to turn things around at the golf course and in less than a year, prospects are up.

“Josh has people coming back to play at the golf course,” Kessler said. “He had some tournaments –that wouldn’t come before and it’s because of the golf course and all the improvements that have been made.

“Josh has done some work over there and the inside of the pro shop is amazing. It’s night and day. He’s done such a great job.”

The main building at the American Legion has seen significant improvements, including the basement and the upstairs main ballroom.

“We did a lot of renovations. Down here in the basement, it’s not dark and dingy anymore. We’re set up now where we can rent this space for conferences. We have new video, audio systems – a completely different sound system. We’re hoping to rent this out for conferences of up to 160 people. We can even do some catering, too, or folks can cater in.”

The renovations were mainly thanks to donations and volunteer hours – everything from plumbing, painting, some electrical and other maintenance improvements that have been needed for sometime.

“All of this remodeling,” said Kessler as he pointed to the work in the basement. “Very little came out of our treasury – 95 percent spent came from donations.

“The donations were huge – if we hadn’t had the support of those donations, we wouldn’t have gotten it done.”

Those funds include individuals from the community, Legion members and three different organizations – the American Legion Riders, Sons of the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary.

“Those three groups are a huge reason why the doors are still open here because of what those three group donated,” Kessler said.

Of course, renovation and remodeling efforts are in part an effort to keep and attract new members, as well as serving as a welcoming place for the general public – a public that in some cases did not even know the Legion was in existence.

“We’ve been reaching out to the community over the past years. And I’m really happy with the response from the community. I didn’t really know what to expect when I took over as commander, other than some community members were coming to use the golf course,” Kessler said.

“The public really didn’t know about us. We’re trying to change that. The American Legion Riders have been hosting Bingo and a dinner nearly every month. The public loves coming back for the dinners. They’re having a blast coming here.”

Kessler said the reaction to the changes that have been made at the Legion have been positive.

“I have people tell me all the time that they think it’s great to see what we’ve done. People I don’t even know have been coming up to me and reaching out.”

More importantly, the environment has changed. Kessler said veteran members are returning to the fold, becoming more engaged and involved.

“This is supposed to be a member-driven organization and you’ve got to have input from you members and I think we have that now. More and more members are coming to meetings because they weren’t happy with how things were going before. Now I have people who come up to tell me ‘I’m glad I came back.'”

And while finances have improved dramatically over the course of the past 12 months, Kessler said there is still plenty of work left to do.

“Things are improving financially. We’re showing profits like we never have before. Yes, we are still dealing with some of the debt that should have been take care of years ago, and we have had to rebuild our reputation with some of our vendors and others who wouldn’t do business with us. But we’re repairing those relationships and businesses are happy that we’re paying our bills.”

“If we didn’t have our finances straightened out, we wouldn’t be here. The banks have worked with us, as have our creditors and suppliers. We’re building up our reputation again and we’re making some money now,” the commander said.

Despite the great advances that have been made in 12 months, Kessler said there is still plenty of work left and donations and contributions are still needed if Post 46 is to move forward.

Groundskeepers and staff have noted that nearly 60 trees will need to be removed soon from the golf course due to an infestation of the Emerald Ash Borer. The post also is trying to upgrade its sprinkler system on the course, so “we’re still playing catch up” Kessler concedes.

And there will always be renovations and remodeling projects in the works because the American Legion wants a place for its members – those veterans who gave so much – to have a place that they can take pride in.

The past year, though challenging, has proven a blessing for Kessler.

“The most gratifying thing for me is that people have come together to support this place. There’s an atmosphere that did not exist before,” he said.

“You’ve got this atmosphere now of helpfulness and unification. Before it was splintered, little factions. But the entire executive board and I have been told time and time again by our members that ‘This is great, this is fantastic.’ I’ve had members tell me they were proud to be a Legion member again. There’s a sense of unity now, more pride in what goes on here than ever before.”

Contact Jeff Hutton at 641-753-6611 or jhutton@timesrepublican.com