| Payton North
SPRINGFIELD – An unfortunate reality has come upon Springfield’s Melha Shriners as the group is planning to sell the organization’s iconic “clubhouse.” The decision to sell was made in light of declining membership over the past 15 years.
In the Melha Shriners heyday, the fraternity had about 4,000 members. Today, the group has 1,150 members. Nationally, the Shriners once had a million members, and now has a mere 250,000. Dan Smith, Shriner officer and Chairman of the building sale committee, believes that it’s more difficult to get individuals to volunteer their time and join organizations in the 21st century.
“The World War II generation joined fraternities, not as much now. I think guys in general are more involved with their families now. There’s less interest, the culture is changing,” Smith said.
The Melha Shriners have inhabited the current residence at 133 Longhill Street for over 50 years, according to Smith.
The decision to sell has been met with much hesitance among members and nobility of the fraternity, Smith said. Last year Melha put up the idea of selling the building to vote and it was shot down. This year, though, Melha nobility voted yes.
“A lot of old-timers are reluctant to sell, but they’re coming around,” Smith said. “We’re trying to regroup so Melha stays in existence long-term.”
When membership was at its peak, the Shriners considered putting an addition onto the already large clubhouse. Today, Melha is struggling to break even on the buildings expenses, and would need 2,000 members to do so, according to an article released by The Camelha, the organization’s newsletter.
The fraternity charges yearly dues at about $115, however members who have been a part of the organization longer or are older have a decreased cost for membership.
“We’re trying to preserve the fraternity. We’re not going broke, but we need to get back on track,” Smith stated.
The Melha Shriners’ main purpose is to support their philanthropic relationship with Shriners Hospitals for Children. There are 22 Shriners hospitals across the country, and none of them charge patients or their families for care.
The Longhill Street property is not up for sale publicly now. Though it hasn’t been formally listed, according to Smith, the building does have individuals interested in purchasing the property. Melha cannot release the names of the prospective buyers as they’ve signed a confidentiality agreement to keep their interest private. Ideally, Smith said, the Shriners will not have to go through a realtor.
While the sale may appear to be the end of an era, Smith doesn’t see it that way.
“This isn’t just about the sale of the building. It’s an attempt for Melha to stay in existence, to support the hospital,”he said.
The Shriners organization has been running national-level campaigns, advertisements and establishing local events in an effort to grow membership. The Melha Shriners oldest member is over 100, with the average member age being 70. The group is attempting to draw in younger members. A few years ago Melha had a 20-year-old member who was involved in the fraternity’s band.
Though the future of Melha’s location is uncertain, Smith is confident that the group will push forward.
“We have no plans as to what we’re doing going forward but the desire is to find a place that will serve us for the next 50 or 60 years. Times are changing, and we need to change with them,” he said.