Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – After another week of revelations, the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building’s startling lack of permit and license compliance is now known to involve four levels of government – local, county, state and federal.
In addition to a failed health state inspection and the absence of Humboldt County and State of California health permits, the troubled hall was last week discovered to lack a City of Arcata business license, a Conditional Use Permit for its previously planned restaurant and a Federal Tax ID number required for the Legion Post’s nonprofit status.
A separate entity called “Arcata Veterans Group” – which includes members of Legion leadership as its officers and which advertises itself as a nonprofit and solicits donations – but apparently lacks official nonprofit status.
Now, the latest in a litany of lapses at the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building goes to the core of its current operations and culture – its downstairs bar or canteen.
The Whiskey Locker
Though alcohol service has continued in the Vets Hall’s USO-style downstairs canteen, it has done so without a required Humboldt County Environmental Health permit or a current permit from the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The canteen was rechristened “The Whiskey Locker” on its initial restoration from use as a storage room in 2018, but that name didn’t catch on.
Lovingly restored after years of neglect by the venerable hall’s dynamic young leaders, the bar has expanded into Boy Scout Troop 9’s former lair. The decades of encrusted scouting memorabilia were removed in favor of a modern venue hosting meetings, concerts and general canteen operations.
The canteen’s bar offers a variety of refreshments, from beer and wine to military-strength liquor. With its games and pub decor, the basement bar has become extremely popular among vets – but, as American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling has frequently cautioned – it may serve only Legionnaires.
The canteen had come under fire from neighbors, who objected to noise and other possible impacts. The Legion’s liquor license was the subject of a complaint-driven Jan. 30 hearing in Eureka held by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency.
A judge is to render a decision on the canteen's license within 30 days of the hearing. Meanwhile, the license is listed as “pending” by ABC, with a “hold” placed on it.
ABC spokesman John Carr said that "the applied-for club license at the Vets Hall encompasses approximately one-quarter of the entire building, leaving the remaining space unlicensed to allow for the public to utilize the building for various functions."
Pending, according to Carr, means that the permanent application has not been finalized.
The application was filed on Feb. 19, 2019. It's been on "hold" – that is, not current, leaving the hall unlicensed to serve alcohol, since March 13, 2019.
Said Carr, "There is no current license at the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building, therefore permanent alcohol sales are not yet allowed, however, the location may apply for special daily licenses where the public service of alcohol is allowed. In addition, private parties are allowable so long as there are no public alcohol sales."
Daily licenses were issued to the Vets Hall on Dec. 31, 2019, Feb. 2, 2020, and to the Humboldt Folklife Society on Feb. 14, 2020.
That would appear to leave the hall in violation for serving alcohol at its Jan. 3 and Feb. 7 American Legion meetings.
The Feb. 7 Legion Post 274 meeting included quaffing of adult beverages upstairs from the canteen, in the building's Great Room. The previous two meetings had been held in the former Boy Scout wing of the canteen with easy access to bracing beverages.
UPDATE: A host of other meetings advertised as "public" which included both food and beverage service have recently taken place at the Vets Hall. Recent listings:
Carr said that the pending club license, after a protest hearing, is currently under review by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who presided over the hearing and he hasn’t yet submitted his proposed decision.
"Until and if the club license is allowed, the entire 10,000 square foot building is not permanently licensed," Carr said.
The adjacent dining room’s kitchen was recently discovered to lack both county and state health permits, making food service to the public and kitchen rentals illegal. That all but ended the facility’s competitiveness with venues such as the Bayside Community Hall, and squashed hopes for a proposed program to serve food to Arcata High School students.
The crimp in the kitchen revenue stream was deemed survivable, according to an optimistic financial report offered by assistant treasurer Philip Nicklas at Post 274’s Feb. 7 meeting.
According to County Department of Environmental Health spokesperson Christine Messenger, the bar holds no county health permit, which is required, and hasn’t been inspected for safety.
Were any violations deemed serious enough to halt the hall’s alcohol service, that could cut off the bar income that had become even more important to hall operations following the kitchen setback. It would also eliminate a key component of the hall’s current culture.
Arcata Veterans Group
In searching for reasons why the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building has been operating without necessary permits and other regulatory necessities, a partial explanation may be found in a separate initiative being pursued by American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling and some of his associates.
The lack of a Legion EIN may be because Sterling et al are attempting to form their own nonprofit organization, one called Arcata Veterans Group. Its somewhat dated but functional website, shared with Post 274 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Mad River Post 2542, includes a sub-heading of “Lost Coast Veterans Association.”
The “Donate or Volunteer” page on the website advertises Arcata Veterans Group as “a non-profit veterans organization 501 (c) 19 consisting of local veterans and their families.”
The IRS says a 501 (c) 19 “provides for the tax-exempt status of qualifying veterans’ organizations and their related auxiliaries that are organized in the United States or any of its possessions.”
States the Arcata Veterans Group website, “To continue in our efforts to maintain community values and sponsoring other community non-profits, we seek help from local businesses.”
It further states, “Our non-profit organization relies on donations and volunteering from citizen heroes to maintain the building, put on events and provide community outreach.”
Underneath the donation pitch are active buttons one may click to join the group and to make donations via PayPal. Between the buttons are displayed the official seals of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force.
However, the IRS’s nonprofit lookup website includes no listing for anything called “Arcata Veterans Group” or “Lost Coast Veterans Association.”
Members of the Arcata Veterans Group’s even-numbered board are listed as Commander Sterling, Executive Officer Lawrence Irvine, Auxiliary President Sophia Bogner and Auxiliary V.P. Alison Robbins.
Sterling speaks of the Arcata Veterans Group in the future tense. At the conclusion of last week’s tumultuous monthly meeting of Legion Post 274, he offered appreciation to fellow boardmembers.
“I want to personally thank Sophia from her start at the get-go of helping with Alison in the founding the Arcata Veterans Group that we’re trying to establish,” Sterling said.
The website also pitches the availability of the hall’s unpermitted “commercial kitchen,” with rental rates.
The Vets Hall and Legion currently have no active finance officer, and it appears Sterling is managing the hall’s books. It’s unknown if the Arcata Veterans Group has accepted any donations.
Sterling no longer responds to inquiries from the Mad River Union.
Notes: This story includes previously posted information, and was updated from the story which appears in the Feb. 19, 2020 edition of the Union. The writer is a member of American Legion Post 274. – Ed.