There is nothing certain regarding the future of the 104-year-old Medford Elks Lodge.
Facing what seems like imminent closure, the once prominent Medford charter will vote next month on whether to merge with the Elks Lodge in Ashland.
The merger, which would require a two-thirds vote in favor at both lodges, means Ashland would take over all of Medford's assets, including its historic 30,000-square-foot temple on the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue.
A vote against merging would likely mean closure, Medford Elks leaders said, but it also could give the lodge a slim chance of surviving with its independence.
According to the fraternal order's bylaws, pulling an Elks charter is about a four-year process, which includes assessing a lodge's potential for revival, said Medford Elks Exalted Ruler John Winn.
"If we go to Ashland, we're dead ... a charter is only allowed one lodge," Winn said. "If we don't, maybe we'll get another chance."
In the red for most of the past decade, the Medford lodge is no longer in debt, leaders say. Before news came down from the national Grand Lodge in July requiring it to vote on a merger with Ashland, Medford was exploring grant opportunities to restore its beloved building and brainstorming ways to breathe life back into the faltering chapter.
"We are paying all of our bills, but barely hanging on," said Dana Watson, Medford Elks esteemed leading knight.
The lack of funding comes down to a serious drop-off in membership over the last few decades, which Medford leaders attribute to a lack of appeal to younger generations. That lack of appeal, they said, comes from restrictive century-old bylaws, fewer Elks-sponsored community and private gatherings, and owning a large decaying building that can't play host to the magnitude of events it harbored during its heyday.
It's a bit of a catch-22, said Winn, who took on leadership of the lodge in April.
The Medford Elks number about 300, Winn said. In 2008, its membership numbered about 500. In the 1970s, the lodge was 1,700 members strong, he said.
"We were on our way to rehabilitation," Winn said. "It can happen, but at this point it seems like we waited too long."
The way most Medford Elks see it, the grand lodge is strong-arming the financially volatile but recovering chapter into merging with Ashland, said several members who declined to be named Tuesday.
"It's not fair," one Medford Elks member said.
"They are completely out of touch," another member said, describing a steering committee formed by the Grand Lodge to assess Medford's ability to survive.
Winn and Watson said they aren't certain how the Medford lodge will vote, and Winn is considering resigning before then.
"We have fought and fought and fought to keep this thing going," Winn said. "It's very, very sad. I understand and respect the Grand Lodge's position. I can see both sides of it, but it's just sad."
In Ashland, the fifth largest Elks lodge in the state with about 800 members, the feeling is the same, said Fred Hatfield, Ashland Elks chairman of the board of trustees.
"It's really sad," Hatfield said. "We hate any time to see another lodge not being able to continue in operations. I don't know how the vote will go ... my assumption is that we will vote to merge. We'd like to offer our fellow Elks a new home."
Winn and Watson said many Medford Elk members do not have the means to travel to Ashland, and others, such as Winn, won't bother.
"It's not much of a choice," Winn said. "We can either jump off this cliff or that cliff."
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, founded in 1868 and now with more than a million members, is dedicated to community service work. Locally, that includes eye clinics, scholarships, youth activities and veterans services.
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.