MINNEAPOLIS – Step into James Ballentine VFW Post 246 and something
The place is alive.
Alive, sadly, is no longer a given when it comes to VFW halls and the older veterans who've been keeping them going.
"This is the last one standing in Minneapolis," says Mary Cullen, a member of the Post 246 Auxiliary.
It's true. Post 246 is the last operating VFW hall in the city of Minneapolis. St. Paul doesn't even have one left.
Lakeville, Golden Valley, Maple Lake and dozens of other Minnesota cities have also lost their VFW halls as WWII and Korean War veterans passed away, with too few younger veterans interested in keeping the gathering places going.
It makes what's happening at Post 246 all the more striking. The Uptown VFW hall isn't just surviving, it's expanding.
"This will be the main doors coming off Lyndale," says the post's senior vice commander during a tour of the new construction.
Sometime in December, Post 246 plans to open a new live music room, kitchen, and not one, but two new bars.
"This place is a little bit different," says Dominic Anspach.
Anspach is a little bit different – at least in terms of what you might expect to find in a VFW senior vice commander.
He's 30 years old.
The tattoos on his arms represent Anspach's service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We still want our Vietnam, Korea, WWII veterans in here," Anspach says, "but we want everyone to feel they have a place here at the VFW."
The proof is on the other side of the wall separating the new construction from the old barroom, where decades of veterans have gathered.
There, James McCloden (Dessert Storm and Operation Just Cause) shoots darts, as Gerald
Both men are African Americans. "At this post we actually have members who don't look like you," McCloden says, nodding toward a Caucasian reporter, "and I love that."
What is happening is an eclectic mix of veterans, swooning couples and neighborhood hipsters.
Depending on the day, some are drawn by karaoke, others by bingo and meat raffles.
All are made to feel welcome – military service or not.
On a recent Thursday night, Maryn Bulygo sat at the bar with Ethan
Bulygo says, "I told my dad a couple days ago, 'Well, we're going to the VFW,' and he's like, 'I'm sorry, you're going to the VFW?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, that's our go-to spot.'"
Already blessed with an Uptown location, the post's remodel features an Instagram-worthy American flag painted on half its front façade and gleaming glass on the other.
Gone is the old Lyndale Avenue brick front, which Anspach describes as "a broken-down post office."
Funds for the remodel came from the developer of an apartment complex that now sits on stilts above the VFW's parking lot.
"Not many places in Minneapolis have been able to pull off an air sale," says a smiling Anspach, "but we're one of them."
Credit young ideas made possible by older veterans who've graciously stepped aside to let them blossom.
Chuck Sasse, a veteran of WWII, calls the VFW's youth movement "a group of good young soldiers."
Sasse can rest assured his "home away from home" will still be waiting for him when the new construction is finished.
The younger vets have decided to keep the current barroom, with its back alley entrance and interior patina, exactly as it is.
"I've heard more positive things about us leaving this the way it is than I have about the new addition," laughs Gary Miller, Post 246 commander.
Those compliments haven't only been coming from the older veterans.
"We love this place," says Ryan McGee, a young veteran who lives in the neighborhood.
Jasmine Simon agreed as she passed out bingo cards to the Saturday afternoon regulars. "It's comfy like a good pair of jeans. You just want to keep coming back."
Profits earned by Post 246 are donated to veterans programs and community groups.
But Anspach insists the expansion is about much more than generating greater financial returns. He points specifically to the high suicide rate among veterans and the missing camaraderie some of them felt while serving.
"Even if we don't make a dollar and we get those young guys in here and we give them that brotherhood they had before and we put them in a better place, we've done our job."
In 2019, the Uptown VFW will mark its 100th anniversary – a century old and refusing to act its age.