Florida Keys News
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Literacy group looks to rent space at Lions Club

After months of searching for a new home, board members of the Key West chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) are hoping the Lions Club building on North Roosevelt Boulevard is the answer.

However, obstacles to a deal remain, namely structural issues, and an agreement with the Lions' leadership.

Longtime LVA Board President Peary Fowler on Thursday made a written offer to Lions President Anthony Boa to rent rooms in the rear of the 3,400-square-foot building at 2405 North Roosevelt Blvd., for $300 per month, including a $100 fee for utilities.

An earlier agreement, which would have seen the LVA pay $200 per month for the space, fell apart after the Lions Club board apparently vetoed it.

"I met with them last month at their general board meeting, and [the Lions board] presented me with a blank contract and said 'give us your offer,' said Fowler, who is also a county judge. "I told them I don't understand why I'm being asked to do this, because I had already made the offer to them through [former Lions Club member] Monica [Geers Dahl.] The only thing we were waiting on was for them to make some repairs to the building so it would be safe for people to move into.

"They said, 'No, we can't afford to do it for the amount we agreed upon.' I think their concerns were our use of the utilities, namely electric and water, because we asked for access to the building from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m."

Fowler said she felt that was a misunderstanding on the part of the Lions board as the LVA wouldn't actually be using the space continually during those hours.

"We just need the place to be available for the tutors so they can meet with their students," she said. "Many of them work strange hours, because they're in the hospitality industry, and will come by before or after work."

At any rate, Fowler said, she presented a counter offer, in person, to Boa on Thursday and was told it would be taken up at the next Lions Club board meeting, which is scheduled for March 27.

Reached for comment on Monday, Boa refused to say whether he would support LVA's current offer, though he did say he "had nothing against the LVA" and was "wide open" to a deal.

"I'm just one voice in eight," Boa said, referring to the rest of his board. "I have to bring this before my board. I usually vote with my mother [Treasurer Mary Boa], so depending on how she feels about it is probably how I'll vote. We need to wait and see."

Mary Boa was equally noncommittal when asked for a comment.

"Nothing's been settled yet, so I don't think there's really a story here," she said. "The LVA is a wonderful group of people, and they do a lot for the community, but right now I think I'd be out of line to give you an answer. I don't want to influence the board."

According to the Monroe County Property Appraiser's Office, the county deeded the land to the Lions Club in 1955 before the clubhouse was built. Deed restrictions ensure that should the Lions Club dissolve, the land will revert back to county ownership.

The Lions Club is one of the oldest 501(c)(3) organizations in Key West, but it's been a long time since most Key Westers have heard much about the club. It was founded in the 1930s, operating out of a building at a previous location.

"There were actually two clubs using that North Roosevelt building for a while, trying to preserve sight for people," said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright. "It was still going full-bore when Dr. [Herman K.] Moore was there. He was a big supporter, and I guess they've fallen on hard times. They had a big drive going about 10 years ago for victims of a disease in Africa that affects eyesight."

The venerable institution was once well known in the community for its A-list membership roster, and its hosting of the Jose Sanchez Eye Clinic.

However, little has been heard lately of Lionism, or membership/fundraising drives, in a town that couldn't exist without its many nonprofits and their fund-raising events.

A sign on the door of the dilapidated building indicates that the eye clinic is open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Wednesday, but sources close to the club say that the regular hours specified on the door disguise the sporadic nature of its actual service-providing schedule.

"The Jose Sanchez Eye Clinic provides eye exams and glasses, and arranges for additional services such as cataract surgery through a foundation for the blind," Dahl said. "These services are much-needed for our low-income community members. We must do what is necessary to keep this clinic open."

The Lions counted numerous highly placed Key West citizens as members. But according to Dahl, the club currently has only five or six active members, and a leadership vacuum has left it rudderless with no sense of mission, or a vision for the future. The problem has become so acute, she said, that the club's very existence hangs in the balance.

Last November, Dahl said, Anthony and Mary Boa informed her of their intention to have the Key West chapter closed, the building condemned, and the land it sits on turned back over to the county.

The problem, they said, was there just wasn't enough money coming in from fees charged to other organizations using the building for various functions to pay the $1,500-a-month expenses.

Dahl believes those funds could likely be generated every weekend by renting the hall out for private parties and the like.

The American Legion signed on in February to hold its weekly bingo meetings there. That contract puts the Lions Club within striking distance of solvency, Dahl said, and leaves the hall open, but empty, during the rest of the month. With a little effort, Dahl maintains, the club should be able to make its own way and remain the community asset it has been for nearly eight decades.

"When I kept hearing that there was a problem with money, I offered to do fundraisers, classes and whatever else was required to keep the club going," Dahl said. "But I was told by Mary and Anthony [Boa] that they didn't want more projects or people in the building because the utilities and cleaning costs would go up. How can we expect to raise more money for charity if we refuse to let more projects and people through our doors into this much-needed community asset?"

Local optometrist Steve Oppenheimer, a Lion for 35 years, said he would use his influence in the club to push for a deal -- provided some way can be found to fix the building's roof, which has rendered parts of it uninhabitable for some time now. Other repairs must also be made to the rear doors and to the spalling-wracked walls.

"That's the real problem right there," Oppenheimer said. "If we could get that fixed, we'd be more than happy to have them come in."

Earlier this year, Dahl said she solicited three bids for all the repairs on behalf of the Lions board. The bids ran anywhere from about $70,000 to $140,000.

"I was told [by the Boas] to stop wasting contractors' time because there were insufficient funds for repairs," Dahl said. "But if we had more rentals, we could be building up a clubhouse repair fund, and begin making a plan ... to eventually replace the building."

For the time being, there's nothing for Fowler and the rest of the LVA board to do but wait.

"We're quite actively pursuing the location because we think it's a perfect place for our needs, and a partnership with the Lions seems like a great fit for LVA," Fowler said. "I have requested an application to become a Lion, and there are other members of my board who would be interested in joining the club as well. Right now, the building needs some repairs and the grass needs to be cut, but I think we could be really good stewards of the property and inject a little enthusiasm into the organization by being involved with them. After all, 'volunteer' is our middle name."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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