Published September 29. 2013 4:00AM
At first blush, an idea being floated by some members of the New London Lodge of Elks would seem a bit far-fetched.
Elks members have been speculating that the city might be well served to swap the Lighthouse Inn, which it took title to this year after no one bid on it at a tax auction, for the downtown building the Elks own on Washington Street.
The numbers alone might suggest this would be a bad deal for the city.
The Elks lodge, a big rambling brick building, is assessed at $488,000. The Lighthouse Inn, with its gracious view of Long Island Sound, is assessed by the city at $3.2 million.
And yet no one came forward to buy the inn at auction. City officials, to lure a buyer, are mulling a long-term tax abatement and an asking price considerably lower than the assessment.
Meanwhile, it sits empty, deteriorating, to the chagrin of neighbors.
The Elks, which dutifully pay the city some $13,000 in property taxes on their Washington Street building, seem prepared to move right into the Lighthouse Inn, stabilize it and start paying taxes.
The inn neighbors, too, might prefer a club over a commercial business, especially one that is dedicated by its charter to good works and serving the community.
Part of what is stirring inn envy among Elks is that the organization, like its sister lodges around the country, is suffering from declining membership. The average age of members is rising.
The organization has begun to tap into its reserves to keep the Washington Street building, spending $30,000 a year to heat it.
And why would the city want to trade its gracious inn by the water for a downtown white elephant?
That's a good question, for sure.
One answer, on the plus side for the Elks swap advocates, is that their building might have more long-term potential to help the city than a refurbished inn.
To prove their point, they need to point no further than the former telephone company building next door, another old brick ark that was successfully transformed into modern apartments.
The city might be better served by having more apartments downtown that appeal to young people than refurbished hotel rooms that draw tourists to the beach.
I got a tour of the Elks building last week from Henry Nichols, the current exalted ruler who is retired from The Day.
Not only did I see some of the features of the building, from the elaborate wood paneling to stained glass windows, but I got an explanation of the good work the organization does.
The New London Elks not only contributes to many of the national organization's causes, like running one of the biggest scholarship funds in the country, but also raise many thousands of dollars for local community causes, coats and food for the poor, grants to the homeless shelter and funds for drug-free parties for kids.
On the tour, I also lost my old notion of the Elks as a clubhouse for white guys. Indeed, there have been women exalted rulers here, and one of the officers now in line to lead the local organization is black. There are also other minorities and gay members, including Mayor Finizio, who was recently sworn in.
If the lodge were able to pull off a swap for the Lighthouse Inn, I will bet a lot of the neighbors there would join, too.
What better way to permanently have a voice in the future of the property.
This is the opinion of David Collins.