SOUTH PORTLAND — South Portland VFW Post No. 832 has run out of money and closed its doors, leaving a handful of active members dejected and looking to fellow veterans at American Legion Post No. 35 for meeting space and moral support.

The departure follows a series of sales of the property, the details of which are in dispute.

A color guard from South Portland VFW Post No. 832 participates in the 2007 Pearl Harbor Day service in Portland. The post had 1,600 members in the 1970s, but now fewer than 10 attend meetings. Staff file photo by Doug Jones

Once one of the largest Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in New England, the South Portland group has dwindled from a high of 1,600 members in the 1970s to about 452 members “on the books” today. Like many veterans groups, the post has struggled to attract new members as older veterans have died and younger veterans have shown no interest in joining.

“Out of those 452 registered members, if I had a post meeting, I was lucky to get seven people,” said Stephen Doyle, post commander. “You can’t keep operating that way. We cut back on everything, but you still have bills to pay.”

Details of the post’s departure from its longtime home at 50 Peary Terrace are murky. Members stopped holding activities there over the summer and auctioned off all of the furnishings and kitchen equipment in September.

They left behind a meeting space that they could no longer afford to heat or pay to keep the lights on.

“We had to make a decision,” said Doyle, 70, visibly curbing his emotions. “We had to sell everything we had.”

Formed in Germany during World War II, the post originally met in a basement space on Broadway, said Doyle, an Air Force veteran and retired firefighter. The post built the 12,000-square-foot building in 1978 at the edge of ballfields that it owned at Peary Terrace and Southeast Road.

Post 832 has long been active in the community. In this photo taken March 24, 1955, Everett A. Chase, a music instructor, shows a trumpet to children recruited for the VFW post’s junior drum and bugle corps. Press Herald file photo

Faced with mounting financial challenges, the post sold the entire property on Peary Terrace in 2009 to Gary Crosby of Scarborough. A real estate investor, Crosby said he sold the playing fields to a developer, who built several homes there.

Doyle said Crosby paid $640,000 for the property, then the VFW paid Crosby $300,000 for the right to remain in the front half of the building – the half that includes the bar and kitchen – for 99 years as long as the post paid for its utilities.

In 2010, Crosby sold the building and one remaining acre for $40,000 to the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center, a nonprofit that now occupies the back half of the building, formerly a spacious meeting hall.

DISPUTED PROPERTY SALES

Crosby recalls the real estate deals differently. He said he paid $340,000 for the entire property and gave the VFW the right to stay there rent-free as long as the post paid for its utilities. Crosby said he subsequently gave the building to the museum, of which he is a board member. The museum’s founder and director, Lee Humiston of Old Orchard Beach, agreed that Crosby gave the building to the museum.

But city and state records back Doyle’s recollection of the sale. According to the city assessor’s website and real estate transfer tax declaration forms filed with Maine Revenue Services, Crosby paid the VFW $640,000 for the entire property in July 2009 and the museum paid Crosby $40,000 for the building in March 2010.

Crosby emphatically defended his recollection of the real estate transactions.

He said the $340,000 that he paid for the property was “a reasonable deal.” Regarding the transfer to the museum, he said, “Don’t trust city records. The museum did not pay anything for that building.”

Crosby said he had hoped the infusion of cash from the property sale would help the VFW survive and perhaps thrive as the museum has. Doyle said the VFW spent the money on day-to-day post operations and events such as weekly community dinners.

Humiston, the museum’s director, said he’s disappointed the VFW wasn’t able to make a go of it and didn’t take advantage of being located next to the museum, which draws visitors from all over Maine and beyond, including many veterans. A 78-year-old Air Force veteran, Humiston said he’s also unhappy that the VFW vacated the building with little notice and left him with more than $600 in unpaid utility bills.

“They told me they were downsizing. This isn’t downsizing,” Humiston said, giving a tour of the empty front half of the building. “They stripped everything, even the walk-in cooler. The only thing left is the bar. They auctioned off everything. They even sold the salt and pepper shakers. That’s when I knew they weren’t staying.”

Humiston said he hopes to rent the front half of the building to a nonprofit, such as a children’s day care or a social services agency. He’s also willing to sell the building to someone who would allow the museum to remain forever. He described the museum as financially sound, surviving largely on donations from veterans and their families.

AN ORGANIZATION IN FLUX

Worldwide, the VFW has 6,390 posts and nearly 1.7 million members who volunteer and contribute more than $52 million annually to veterans programs, struggling military families and other community service projects. But the South Portland post isn’t alone in its battle to maintain or attract members, said Richard Farris of Belfast, commander of the Maine VFW.

“Many posts in Maine are having membership problems,” Farris said. “We’re looking into it and trying to figure it out. A lot of posts no longer have homes, so they’re meeting in other places.”

Doyle, commander of the South Portland VFW, said the post hasn’t given up its charter and hopes to reorganize. For the time being, VFW members will meet at the American Legion on Broadway, where the downstairs hall and kitchen were recently remodeled by Lowe’s volunteers.

“We have many joint interests with the VFW,” Legion Commander Wes Splettstoesser said. “They are our brothers and comrades.”

Doyle admits that the chances of VFW Post No. 832 flourishing in the future aren’t good. A lot has changed since he joined in 1970, three days after he came home from Vietnam.

The ladies’ auxiliary disbanded 10 years ago – a death knell for any post, he said. The post took another hit when Humiston banned smoking to protect the museum’s displays and archives. And entertainment and social habits have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, including the advent of social media that allows veterans to connect without joining an organization or even leaving the house.

“The younger vets don’t want to join,” Doyle said.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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