A latte for vets?


BIGFORK -- The plan is to attract more battle-hardened military veterans, even if it means WIFI, cappuccino and cafe lattes.

“We are trying to attract younger members,” said Bigfork’s VFW Post 4042 Commander ED Byrne. “We are losing some WWII, Korea and Vietnam vets but we are targeting the younger guys from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have some members, they want coffee but they don’t like the environment of the current building.”

The VFW’s current building on Highway 35 is fraught with challenges: Parking problems, it’s hard to access for handicapped vets, small restaurant and bar, a tricky layout.

Using grants, donations and fund raisers, the VFW purchased the former Masonic Lodge building next to Sanger Law Firm and home to the Farmers Market and expects to close escrow in February, Byrne said. He hopes to have a “thank you” reception a few weeks after VFW takes ownership of the building. Byrne said he could display draft floor plans at the open house and hopes to open for the public in May or June.

The new building is 4,600 square foot and includes a 1,000sf storage building and sits on one-level with the parking lot.

Byrne hopes the new building will be so dynamic, it will become a unique resource for vets and the entire community, justifying its $450,000 20-year mortgage. Byrne estimates the VFW will spend another $300,000 in improvements over time.

The farmers market and Mason’s will still have access but plans include adding a casino, restaurant, bar and conference room.

VFW officials used grants from the Bigfork Improvement Board and revenues from fireworks sales and the annual Rumble in the Bay car festival and Rumble in the Air show.

Byrne said, with input from a vets committee, the new facility will feature a 100-seat restaurant, a large room for bingo, a bar with pool tables and dart machines, a casino behind glass, WIFI and, of course, a coffee bar.

It will also stay open seven days a week.

“Old guys like me like our coffee,” Byrne said. “But younger vets want their lattes and cappuccinos. We also need the Internet so we can attract the younger veterans.”

The Bigfork VFW has 103 members who come from Creston to the Harbor and Eagle Bend, Byrne said, but the vast majority of clientele are not members. Though attracting more vets to join and visit, the VFW’s leaders want to create a dynamic watering hole.

“We need a community assessment so we can turn it into a Veterans Community Center for whole community and stay open later at night to get the under-21 crowd,” Byrne said. “Kids don’t have lots to do in the community so we want to generate enough revenues to keep the restaurant open later.”

The VFW, a nonprofit 501c19 and 501c4, has a realistic plan to keep the new facility financially sustainable.

Byrne said the bar and restaurant will generate revenue and the gaming by itself will pay mortgage, taxes and insurance.”

Still, the VFW will use a creative way to raise money to continue its own forms of supporting the community.

The new facility includes a 35-foot-long bar. VFW will sell Challenge Coins for $25 with $20 from each coin going to the building fund. The people buying the coins get the names engraved onto the Challenge Coins and when the bar is upgraded, the coins will be sealed onto the top of the bar.

“We definitely want to stay connected and work towards a greater Bigfork and surrounding area,” Byrne said.

THE OLD BUILDING

Meanwhile, VFW still owns an asset in the old building across from Harvest Foods on Highway 35, which sits on 2.1 acres and zoned residential in the rear and commercial on the highway and has access to sewer and water. The property, which Byrne believes has great potential, is on market for $350,000. The community already has stepped up to help with the project. Kootenai Lodge donated an $80,000 stainless-steel kitchen that is in storage right now. Jack Paulson, “a good friend of the VFW,” Byrne said, has donated a $31,500 pool table. Another pool table made of Italian marble has been donated by a Ferndale resident, and the Helena VFW has donated a new heating, air-conditioning and ventilation system for the new veterans center. Sliters Building Supply is discounting the needed building materials and LHC is creating additional parking at the new center.

For more information or to make donations, contact the Bigfork Veterans Center, P.O. Box 427, Bigfork, MT 59911, or call 406-837-0666 or email byrne.ej@reagan.com.


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