Elks Lodge Southern District Deputy and Grand Exalted Ruler Michael Thomas went before Galloway Township Council on Tuesday night, Nov. 27 with a plea to keep the lodge open. He spoke about the good things the lodge has done for the township, particularly the schools, police and fire districts.
Thomas believes a town that has the Elks is better off than a town that doesn’t.
But Galloway is in danger of losing its Elks Lodge No. 2845, which has been fined for not meeting Galloway’s Uniform Construction Code at its leased building on Route 9, which opened on April 1, 2011.
These violations include plumbing, electrical and architecture issues that the Elks have either already handled or are in the process of handling. However, the Elks remain in violation of the code as it pertains to the use of the building.
“Essentially, the town is saying that the present use of the building when utilized for large gatherings as you have recently and in the near past advertised … is not permitted,” William L. Klein, CEO and Broker of Record for Kay Realty Services stated in an email on Nov. 19.
Klein’s suggestions included petitioning the town for a change to permit this use; holding large events on another site while continuing to maintain the current building as their headquarters; or making arrangements to purchase the building.
According to Klein, the building’s current owner has no interest in going before the Galloway Township Planning Board for the change of use permit, as that process could cost as much as $10,000.
According to Thomas, the Real Estate company knew what the Elks was planning to do with the building when they began leasing it three or four years ago.
“They knew we were using it for a lounge, meetings and fundraisers,” Thomas said. "We're no different than any other organization that raises money."
“They never explained that it would be used for large gatherings,” Klein said. “They completely changed the use from a former engineering building. They now have a bar and a kitchen facility. We were told that building would be their headquarters where they keep records and conduct meetings.”
Thomas said he wasn't directly involved in the negotiations, and the Elks believed they were permitted to use the building for fundraising events. He said they did so for a year before it became an issue.
"We would hold all our large gatherings outside," Thomas said. We never had an incident, there were no problems with the law, and we used the parking lot at (the Galloway Community Charter School) next door. ... The township has asked us to stop until we get this fixed, and we have."
"The township's been working with the lodge," Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola said. "We have a great relationship with them, and they're great for the community. They have to make the building compliant. ... The issue is safety. We don't want anyone getting hurt."
Thomas said personal safety is something the Elks stress.
The large gatherings in question include chicken barbecues, a pig roast, and a spaghetti dinner. According to Thomas, the food was always takeout from another location, for reasons of personal safety.
He also stated all the renovations done to the building have met building code.
"We didn't have the permits we needed and we thought we did," Thomas said. "Now we're back tracking and trying to get everything done the right way."
According to Thomas, the Elks are seeking an avenue to purchase the building, and Klein said the Elks can purchase the building “whenever they want.”
Thomas said it would cost about $2,000 to $2,200 a month to purchase the building. The Elks currently pays about $1,700 a month to lease it.
The organization needs more time to raise the money, however. Thomas said the Elks have asked Galloway for that time. He targeted January as a possible date for the Elks to be in position to purchase the building.
The building is currently owned by a private individual, and all dealings concerning this building involve the Elks and that person.
"It's a tough situation because they're doing good work," Councilman Brian Tyrrell said. "It's really out of our hands. They have to follow the construction code."
"If they don't meet code regulations, we must enforce it," Township Manager Arch Liston said. "We can't bend the rules for them."
Should the Elks reach an agreement with the building's current owners, and be able to purchase the building, it would be up to them to handle the costs associated with upgrades, including the thousands of dollars it will cost to have an architect come in and evaluate the building.
At one time, the Elks used the American Legion building on Route 30 as their headquarters, and it had 220 members, according to Thomas. However, when the township purchased the building and the Elks were no longer able to use it, members began to lose interest.
“When you have no place to meet, you lose membership,” Thomas said. “People lose interest and they decide they want to do something else.”
The membership dropped to 90 members, but has grown back to 129 since moving in to the new building. Thomas said if they lose this building, that will mean the end of the Elks in Galloway Township.
Thomas spoke about the work the Elks has done for the community, including the donating of a total of about $500 in scholarships to seniors graduating from Absegami High School and getting ready to go to college. They’ve also donated between $2,000 and $3,000 to the Galloway Community Charter School, $1,200 to Galloway Police last year, and placing two runners-up in a national essay writing contest this year.
“Each kid got a significant amount of money,” Thomas said. “We’ve always had winners of essay contests. Last year, we had the first, second and third place finishers in a district-wide contest, and the first place winner ended up third in the state. There were probably about 300 kids involved.”
Thomas said these are things that wouldn’t be possible if the Elks didn't have a presence in the township.
“We just want to stay in Galloway,” Thomas said.