Daily Union Jan. 17, 2017

Fort Club Membership, Programs ‘on the grow’

This article appeared in The Daily Jefferson County Union on Tuesday, January 17, 2017 by Christine Spangler.

It’s the “chicken and the egg” thing.

The Fort Atkinson Club needs members to help draw up programs and programs to help draw in members.

Encouraging community involvement by imagining new ways to interact, enhancing membership benefits and embracing volunteerism are important goals as the nonprofit community center enters its third year.

What actually came first was the nonprofit Rock River Heritage’s $2.3 million restoration of the former businessmen’s club and Masonic Lodge built in 1912. Now, after two years in operation, the beautifully renovated historic structure overlooking the Rock River in downtown Fort Atkinson is poised for growth.

“The first year-and-a-half we focused on developing policies and procedures, welcoming initial events and getting programs under way,” said Renae Mitchell, who has served as the club’s director since July 2016. “This year, I want to work with members to plan new programs, host more member hours, reach out to the broader community and build our partnerships.”

Plans call for more marketing to “get the word out that we are here, as a lovely venue for gatherings, as well as reaching out to businesses with package deals to encourage more weekday and week-night use,” she said. “We are very lucky to have kitchens on two levels and a variety of lighting and audio-visual capabilities for presentations and PowerPoints.”

Discounted rates are available for members.

Last year, the club was the site of more than 160 family and office gatherings, including 21 showers, 10 graduation parties, 26 birthday parties, 25 business meetings, 14 weddings, 18 holiday parties, five retirements, seven funeral lunches/memorials and other family gatherings.

“Already as the new year has begun, we have had quite a few people calling to book events, from graduation parties and weddings to anniversaries and showers,” Mitchell said. “But we still need to fill the calendar in more, especially on weekdays.”

Mitchell noted that the Fort Atkinson Club has two identities: first, as a community center and, second, as an event venue.

“The Fort Atkinson Club can be what the members want it to be, if they are willing to help it grow,” Mitchell said. “We are open to all kinds of ideas and suggestions. We appreciate member support because it allows us to provide the base from which we can host community groups and other nonprofit organizations and offer programming to area residents of all ages. Event usage alone does not cover our costs for the building, so we rely on donations and memberships to help us provide these programs.”

The Fort Atkinson Club community center logged a very busy 2016. It was the site for the Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival, Rock River Theatre and Fort Atkinson Community Theatre plays, candidate forums, Rotary Club meetings, Tai Chi classes, music lessons, book discussions, maple syrup making, paint party therapy, family movie nights, Fort Atkinson Winter Farmers and Art Markets and Fort HealthCare events such as a healthy joints camp.

The popular fall and spring lectures have brought local professors and other experts in their fields to give talks on a variety of topics. This spring, talks will take place every other Tuesday from March 14-May 23. They are free and open to the public.

In addition, the Fort Atkinson Boys and Girls Club and Wisconsin Makers makerspace have partnered with the club to provide arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs for middle school students. Volunteer instructors are needed to help continue the program in 2017.

“The Fort Atkinson Club also is seeking instructors to hold fitness and other types of classes or workshops here,” Mitchell said.

Members of Fort Atkinson Club committees currently are busy planning a euchre tournament, magic event and community dances. Mitchell said that if members take an interest in helping set them up, the club would like to host dances of all varieties, such as polkas, salsa, line dancing and a contra dance.

Contra is sort of a cross between bluegrass and square dancing in which there is a caller.

“Contra is done in lines and sometimes squares. It doesn’t usually involve frilly skirts. People can dress however they want,” Mitchell said with a smile, adding that adults and children age 12 and up would enjoy this. “You don’t have to know anything. The caller leads you through the dance steps and participants help each other with a gentle nudge and a laugh. It’s a lot of fun. I first met my husband at a summer contra dance!”

Other ideas include “hot Latin music on a cold winter’s night,” an intergenerational dance and a dance for adult care participants and their caregivers.

“We could try any type of dance,” Mitchell said. “We have the location; all we need is a few people to help find the deejays or musical groups, invite others and help host.”

Also planned for this year is restoration of the understructure supporting the original two-lane bowling alley on the river level. The Fort Atkinson Club is seeking a $7,500 challenge grant from the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation to match $7,500 that would be raised publicly.

Starting in March, the work will repair dry rot under the historic alleys. A Milwaukee restoration expert has located wooden gutters to replace the club’s damaged ones. When the restoration is complete, the alleys will be ready to use. Of course, there will be a reopening celebration Mitchell said.

Another thing the Fort Atkinson Club plans to renovate this year are member hours, times set aside for members to simply relax and enjoy this beautiful building.

Member hours could be spent simply reading a book in the solarium, playing cards in the Club Room, holding a sing-along around the piano or having a conversation by the Lodge Room fireplace.

“We can be a place where people can come talk to each other face to face and discuss the issues of the day,” Mitchell suggested. “We’re looking for people willing to facilitate discussion groups or casual conversations.

“Some members will want to use it as a quiet place to relax. Others might want to organize and attend activities, like quilting, game days, computer classes and the like,” Mitchell continued. “We can have more if we have volunteer hosts willing to lead activities. The key is commitment, so we can schedule times and dates then let others know about them.”

Now that the holidays are over, Mitchell said, the club will be contacting several members who have expressed an interest in volunteering.

Right now, the Fort Atkinson Club has 340 members, along with nine corporate memberships and several nonprofit members. Yearly memberships cost $25 for individuals, $40 for families, $250 for corporations, $150 for small businesses and $100 for nonprofit organizations and community groups.

“I think of us as a do-it-yourself location where the community can develop the best ways to interact,” Mitchell said. “We value our members. They are the energy force behind the community center.”

A Member Appreciation Night is slated for Sunday, Jan. 29, from 4 to 7 p.m. Club members are invited to stop in to enjoy refreshments, music and conversation. Nonmembers who would like to sign up are welcome, as well.

Meanwhile, Mitchell said that word continues to spread about the beautiful Arts and Crafts-style building and riverfront locale, which recently was listed on the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places.

“People like coming here,” she said. “The cost for usage is reasonable because we’re mainly just providing the building, tables and chairs and letting folks do things on their own within reason.

“We encourage people to stop by and tour the building,” Mitchell continued. “We always are happy to show guests the history and future possibilities.”

Drop-in hours are from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday or anytime by appointment.

Proceeds from event use currently cover only about half of the costs to maintain and operate the building. That is why, as with the “chicken and the egg,” the Fort Atkinson Club depends on new memberships and volunteers to grow its main mission as a community center.

Members and nonmembers alike are encouraged to visit fortatkinsonclub.org and sign up for the monthly newsletter, as well as “like” the Fort Atkinson Club on Facebook and follow what’s happening in the 6,000 square feet of space.

Membership and donation forms are available at the club or online at www.fortatkinsonclub.org. Checks may be made payable to the FAC and sent to or dropped off at: The Fort Atkinson Club, 211 S. Water St. East, Fort Atkinson, WI, 53538. All donations are tax-deductible.

Persons may contribute toward the club’s fledgling Partners for the Arts program, youth programming or sponsorship of an activity, room or theater seat.

For more information about these opportunities or the Fort Atkinson Club itself, email info@fortatkinsonclub.org or call Renae Mitchell at (920) 568-1720.