Open House? How about Open for Business?
This past weekend saw another statewide “Open House” in which lodges across Connecticut were encouraged to open their doors to walk-in visitors who might be interested in the fraternity — and hopefully, interested enough to join. The Grand Lodge provided radio advertising and other promotional materials, and the participating lodges — over four dozen of them — hung out signs and notices directing the public. Southington was typical of the lodges around the state; Friendship No. 33 was open between noon and 4 in the afternoon, and a handful of brothers came down to hang out, drink some coffee, and chew the fat while waiting for visitors to come calling.
Similar programs have taken place in other states, with some reported success — “success” being that in many places people actually did go out of their way to stop in at a local lodge to ask questions. Friendship had two or three people stop by; ironically, none of them from Southington. Several other lodges reported similar results. At the moment, I don’t have any data on how many of those visitors have actually become members, but at the very least, the Committee on Masonic Awareness views this as an opportunity to educate the public.
I had a few errands to run on Saturday, and didn’t make it down to the lodge until about 1:30, and a walk-in had just shown up. I mused on the idea of “walk-in visitors” because the despite the fact that Friendship is situated right in the middle of town — on the town green, in fact — the visitor, like the several others, had driven some distance out of his way to get there. And that’s when the idea came to me.
Friendship Lodge, like many lodges in New England, is situated in the center of town, in a place easily accessible… for farmers on horseback, or for merchants with a trap or carriage, or for those that lived close to the center of town. But as the empty storefronts and lack of businesses can attest, nobody walks around the center of town anymore. This is why the Open House program, like many committee-developed ideas, is doomed to failure: it addresses an issue with a solution that is no longer relevant. It’s time for solutions to our dwindling membership that are more ambitious, and more relevant.
The people aren’t going to come to the lodges, so let’s put the lodges where the people are going: To the shopping malls.
New England is filled with many historic, old lodge buildings. By “historic,” of course, I mean out-dated firetraps with inadequate electrical and plumbing systems, poor accessibility for the older members, and little room for expansion. Oh sure, every other week you hear Chris Hodapp moaning about how some ancient “historic” building is closing, but there’s a reason those buildings have closed: they aren’t as interesting as the modern shopping malls. In an effort to attract and retain shoppers, they have a variety of restaurants catering to every taste, water fountains, gathering places, coffee bars, and pleasant ambient music. Unfortunately, the poor economy has caused a number of the smaller stores in many shopping malls and plazas to close, with few prospects for new renters on the horizon. It’s not unusual to see shuttered storefronts in even the busiest malls. In fact, some malls have even taken to creating fake storefronts to disguise the empty stores inside.
My proposal is that we start closing those old
firetraps “Historic buildings”, and start renting long-term space in the malls. With the number of lodges that we could move, we could surely cut a deal with the mall management companies for low rental fees. We would have more than adequate parking, handicap access, janitorial services, and plenty of three-prong electrical outlets. More importantly, we could have an Open House program pretty much every week, and be assured of having all the pedestrian traffic that we could handle. In fact, we’d probably have to have an Open House Month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, just to accommodate the crowds.
To sweeten this idea, why stop at lodge rooms? Let’s capitalize on the recent spate of Nick Cage movies, Dan Brown books, and History Channel specials by putting a small Masonic bling shop in front. Brothers would no longer have to haunt Ebay or thumb through last year’s Macoy’s catalog looking for rings, Past Master jewels, or auto decals; we could have display racks full of pins, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. We could run sales flyers for the regular mall shoppers, reminding them to pick up a Square & Compasses ball cap for that special Mason in their lives.
Before you turn up your nose at this idea, consider something else: Who else hangs out at the mall during the weekends? That’s right: teenagers. The dwindling enrollment of our DeMolay and Rainbow chapters could also benefit from having our lodges in the shopping malls; most lodges do not meet on Saturdays, so we could easily use the space for our Masonic youth groups. Parents could drop off the children, do a little shopping, and pick the kids up when the meeting is finished. And once we get the lodges and youth chapters moved over, then we could start looking at those OES chapters.