There’s a physical space in every community that serves as its soul, its beating heart — a place that defines a town’s sense of being, its identity.
In Cayucos, it’s the Veterans Memorial Lions Hall.
The Cayucos vets hall, like many buildings in town, is modest in outward appearance. That’s not surprising, given its birth as a warehouse nearly 150 years ago by the town’s founder, shipping entrepreneur Capt. James Cass.
Almost 100 years ago, the warehouse was moved a short distance to its current location at the base of Cayucos Pier. With some typically Cayucan modifications and additions over the years, it’s become the civic center of the community.
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In many ways, the vets hall is the emotional center of town. It’s hosted hundreds of wedding celebrations for local folks and those from the Central Valley and beyond.
It’s where we go to celebrate bar mitzvahs and confirmations, graduations and birthdays, where we mourn the passing of loved ones and folks we knew from the neighborhood.
Senior potluck lunches, community Thanksgiving dinners, concerts and parties happen there, too.
The hall is the educational and organizational center of town as well. It’s the place for classes in dance, painting, woodcarving and computers, and the meeting place for service clubs and the Cayucos Citizens Advisory Council — where I joined the public life of this county sometime in the previous century.
Now, though, time has caught up with the vets hall.
As work began last year to repair the seaward-facing exterior wall, we found serious structural problems with the foundation. As we looked closer, we found little to keep the building from collapsing, aside from the good wishes of those to whom it means so much. Reluctantly, we chose to close most of the structure last May.
The closure has hit hard in Cayucos.
San Luis Obispo County did install a temporary events tent adjacent to the hall. That space is less than half the hall’s size and not well-suited to many of the social, educational and club events regularly held at the vets hall. While we’re thankful for a wet winter, evening advisory council meetings there have been miserable.
The Cayucos visitor-serving economy is feeling the pain as well. From a yearly average of 50 to 60 weddings, plus all the other usage, the Cayucos Lions Club (event managers for the county) reported only 21 events and 42 cancellations for 2016.
Coupled with the recent long-term closure of Highway 1, restaurants, motels and vacation rental agencies throughout the North Coast are concerned and at risk.
Those business losses could affect county finances as well: In each of the past two fiscal years, the county General Fund has received more than $1 million in transient occupancy tax from Cayucos lodging businesses alone — about 12 percent of the total transient occupancy tax collected countywide. We doubt 2017 will finish as strong.
Why weren’t these structural problems found and corrected earlier? It’s partly because they weren’t obvious until we looked, and partly because the Great Recession drained county resources and piled up deferred maintenance projects.
The vets hall is owned by the state. It’s been operated by the county for more than 60 years under an agreement that includes other State Parks properties as well. Maintenance of the hall is a county responsibility.
I make no excuses for some frustrating delays — the process of rehabilitating a historic structure on the shoreline is complex and moves slower than anyone, especially me, wants.
At our Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, we can take the first step toward restoring the vets hall. We’ll consider a contract for architectural and engineering design of repairs.
It’s a small step, but from there, we’ll get an estimate of the full cost of the repair and find a way to finance the restoration.
Closure of the Cayucos veterans hall has affected the community deeply, but, as expected, Cayucans are rallying to bring back this center of our civic and community life. It’s a matter of the heart.
Bruce Gibson represents District 2 on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.