By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN When Dr. Mike Thoennes offered to purchase the Winsted American Legion building and keep it functioning as a Legion members didn’t hide their amazement.
“We almost felt like we won the lottery,” Winsted American Legion Commander Jeff Sterner said.
“It’s crazy generous,” Adjutant Chip Guggemos added. “It’s going to be wonderful.”
Like many Legions throughout the US, Winsted’s organization had hit some hard times. About a year ago, members began talking about selling their building, located downtown at 161 1st St. N.
“We basically break even, and there’s no excess money for improvements,” Guggemos said, adding that the building could use about $40,000 worth of upgrades.
A downward trend
Several factors contributed to the Legion’s financial situation, including aging and declining membership. Of the Legion’s 135 or so members, only about 12 attend monthly meetings.
“We have a shortage of money and a shortage of manpower other than that, the Legion’s doing great,” Sterner commented.
A December 2013 article in the Star Tribune headlined “Minnesota VFWs, American Legions selling their meeting halls” described this trend throughout the state.
“They literally could have interviewed us and written the same article,” Sterner said.
Years ago, the Legion ran Winsted’s annual summer festival, typically making a profit of $10,000 to $15,000 on that event alone. The Legion also offered pull-tabs, and was bustling with bar activity.
Now, the Legion nets a total of $6,000 to $7,000 per year from all fundraising/membership dues, which goes toward necessary expenses like electricity, heat, and property taxes.
Property tax, which increased by 134 percent in one year, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Sterner.
Potential to sell
In January 2013, the Legion had a special meeting to talk about the future of its building.
“It was the largest membership meeting we’ve had in a long time,” Guggemos said, noting that 25 people were in attendance.
At that time, the general consensus was to wait, and see if economic conditions improve.
Months later, Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson offered to purchase the building for $25,000, in order to provide rental housing for his seasonal employees.
Legion members considered the offer, reasoning that it would be better to sell than to keep a building they can’t afford.
The situation wasn’t ideal, though, because the Legion would no longer have a place to conduct pancake breakfasts, host meetings, store rifles/flags, and get together before Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and military funerals.
“The Legion building has also been a place for other organizations to meet, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, VFW, Auxiliary,” First Vice Commander Rose Heimerl added.
Saving the Legion space
Thoennes (owner of Distinctive Dental Services in Winsted) had known the Legion was considering selling, but assumed members would put the building on the market first.
When Thoennes heard about the potential arrangement with Johnson, he approached Heimerl after church, and asked about taking over ownership of the building.
“My idea is to keep the building functioning as a Legion,” Thoennes said.
Legion members approved the signing of a purchase agreement for the price of $1 to Thoennes April 2, and a contract is currently being drafted. The terms will likely be finalized by early summer, and will include details about utilities, rentals, usage, maintenance, insurance, inspection fees, and related matters.
The plan is for the Legion to have a 99-year lease, with a right of first refusal if sold at that time.
Military and ministry
Thoennes is one of many local people who have generously supported the Legion over the years.
Both of Thoennes’ parents were veterans of World War II. His mother, Elinor, was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and his father, Theodore “Ted,” was a sergeant in the Army.
“We learned to make hospital corners on our beds when we were 5 years old,” Thoennes laughed, explaining that his childhood was filled with military influences.
In addition to the Legion’s continued use of the building, Thoennes plans to use the space for his Catholic Outreach Resources Evangelization (CORE) ministry.
Thoennes and co-founder Mary Hagar (director of education at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Waverly) work with Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, MI to offer Bible studies, Life in the Spirit seminars, leadership training, the Alpha Course, and more.
Usually, groups meet in the basement of Thoennes’ dental office in Winsted, or at churches in Waverly or Maple Lake.
Thoennes said the Legion building will be more convenient than the dental office basement, because of handicapped accessibility.
In the future, Thoennes hopes to make improvements to the Legion building’s bathrooms, stairway, walls, floors, windows, roof, and exits.
“It’s like a miracle prayer that’s been answered,” Heimerl said.
Join the Legion
If you’re an honorably discharged member of the Armed Forces who served at least 90 days during a time of conflict, you are eligible to join the American Legion.
To learn more, contact Chip Guggemos at (320) 485-4332 or email@example.com.