On the nights that it is open, the parking lot for American Legion Post 10 in Las Vegas is dark, but full. One security guard is stationed at the brightly lit entrance, while another watches over the bar inside.
The security presence at the building off H Street and Doolitle Avenue in the city’s Historic Westside is a reminder of the post’s problematic past, when it was plagued by violence and nearly forced to close due to financial problems.
But leaders say overcoming the troubles led to a spiritual rebirth and rekindled their commitment to fulfill the post’s mission to assist veterans, their families and the community at large. That, in turn, led them to develop an ambitious plan to play a role in tackling the city’s homelessness, with an emphasis on veterans and families.
The proposal, which includes building small homes for single mothers who are veterans and developing an incubator for veteran-owned businesses, is by far the most ambitious undertaking in the post’s seven-year history.
And given that fundraising efforts are still in their infancy, some critics say the project is a pipe dream doomed to fail.
Post Commander Grady Hayes acknowledges that he and other officials have set a high bar, but says he and his comrades have the wherewithal to pull it off.
‘Trying to fly away’
“We’re not just trying to crawl and walk, we’re trying to fly away,” he said. “We want to prove to the city that we can operate.”
Hayes said plans are expected to be phased in as the organization obtains funding from grants and donations. Initially the tiny homes for single female veterans will be placed on the post’s property, for example, them moved to an empty lot off Doolittle Avenue.
Next would come the space to help veteran-owned businesses get off the ground, with an eye toward filling service gaps in the economically challenged community.
Throughout the process, Hayes said, the post hopes to partner with other organizations to administer support services, including youth programs, peer counseling, community feeding and job training.
The 1.1-acre property was first occupied by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10057 in 1968. The American Legion shared the facility, which often referred to as the “Dirty Floor.”
Throughout its history, there has been at least one shooting in the parking lot, and the city of Las Vegas had numerous complaints regarding the VFW not adhering to requirements of its license.
Finally the VFW state commander revoked the club charter in 2008 due to public safety concerns and allegations of missing money.
It remained closed for four years, but on Oct 29, 2012, the building reopened as the American Legion Post 10. Since then it has operated without major problems and was able to acquire a temporary nonprofit liquor license during a March City Council meeting, though it came with restrictions on operating hours, and requires a mandatory two security guards, as well as security cameras and limits on guests while requiring at least one pre-approved key employee on the premises at all times.
Gangs declare post a safe zone
Hayes said the post is working with Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Yesenia Yatomi, head of the Bolden Area Command, to ensure that the violence that once plagued the VFW post does not return. Two rival gangs operate in the area, but have informally agreed to consider the post a safe zone from violence, he said.
“We’re not trying to be a bar, lounge, or a nightclub,” Hayes said. “What we’re trying to be is what we were chartered to be: to help not only the veterans and their families but the community as a whole.”
The lack of a bar, which previously generated much of the post’s operating budget, and restrictions imposed by the city that only allowed it to host two events a month, also pushed the post to the brink of closure. But longtime members dug into their pockets to keep the mission alive.
“They were on the verge of losing everything,” said Robert Swift, a noncommissioned Army officer who fought in Vietnam and has been part of the post since the ‘90s.
Hayes said the members were repaid after he assumed command a few months ago, and the post is actively saving funds for its programs. The red-and-white building is undergoing some renovation: Home Depot’s charitable arm recently donated $18,000 in labor and materials, including installing gazebos in the backyard and sprucing up the landscaping.
The building also is now adorned with murals depicting notable black historical figures. In the front, one mural depicts the famous Buffalo Soldiers who served during the Civil War, riding in on their horses and holding an American flag. Another shows an image of the Tuskegee Airmen. A third is a portrait of three-star Gen. Benjamin Davis.
The improvements to the building have not been inexpensive, but now the post is in need of some serious cash if it is to realize the vision of Hayes and his team.
To fund the proposed housing, the post has applied for five grants and is actively searching for other funding opportunities. Leaders also hope to secure about 40 nearby units for veterans approved for HUD-VASH, an affordable housing program run through the Veterans Administration.
Plan to start small
The idea is to start small, by placing three tiny homes for the veteran mothers on the property once an old building on the grounds is demolished.
The cost for three homes are estimated at $110,000. In total, with the two-year cost of staff and the installment of a security system and fencing, as well as underground plumbing, it’s estimated to run $650,000, said Hayes, a 65-year-old former Army sergeant who worked in marketing and as an analyst for Boeing after his time in the service.
Post leaders have not yet calculated costs for the business incubator service. But one post member, former Army Pfc. Patricia Williams, said she worries that the post’s bar is its only source of funding, and predicts that much of the revenue it generates will ultimately go to its operation.
Williams is one of three women members at the post and has been involved with the legion for 14 years and said she was not accustomed to what she called a lackadaisical approach to the American Legion’s traditions and bylaws.
“The history of that club is what puts the post in jeopardy,” she said. “They’re still battling with a lot of things, and it’s really sad (because) there are some members that would like to see that post function as an American Legion.”
But Army veteran and former Las Vegas Fire Chief David Washington, who hosts a veterans radio show on Friday mornings on KCEP 88.1 where the post reaches out to the community and shares news about its initiatives, said he believes the organization can be instrumental in “getting rid of this so called stigmatization of this area.”
And City Councilman Cedric Crear, whose Ward 5 encompasses the post, said the group already is having a positive impact, even before the big dreams are realized.
“The mission, from a national perspective is highly needed in our society, I’m happy to see them on the right path; it’s a definite void that they can fill,” Crear said.
“They’re good people that have good hearts and they have very good intentions and I see them being successful.”
The federal holiday is observed Nov. 11 for military veterans who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
Las Vegas’ annual Veterans Day Parade is set for 10 a.m. downtown, running north on Fourth Street between Gass and Stewart avenues.