Masonic Buildings - $250,000 for Freemasonry and rethinking Old Models

From Damien of Lodge Devoiton (October 2015)

In May 2013 in an article titled “$100,000 for Freemasonry and rethinking Old Models”, I announced we’d achieved $100K of revenue for external hire at the Collingwood Masonic Centre (CMC). Since then and via an introduction from Grand Lodge, I’ve started also working on increasing revenue at the Ringwood Masonic Centre. At these two Centres, I’ve now generated over $267,000 in revenue from external hire at those purpose built Masonic Centres. Both are also supported by lodge rents which are not included in that total. I’m very proud I can say that I’ve generated over a quarter of a million dollars for Freemasonry – I would think there are few who can say the same without having sold an asset; but that’s not generating funds, it’s realising them; often its selling the family farm and silver in tough times.. We can also say we’ve not just kept the doors at Collingwood opened, but have continually improving the Centre – this week we installed 4 new split systems for heating and cooling.

At Collingwood, without shops or ongoing separate commercial tenancies, with few lodges meeting in the Centre, combined with the fact we had a run down and tired building and no cash, in the year 2009, most thought Collingwood was dead in the water. However some vision, optimism, and strategic thought resting in the assumption that we needed to take responsibly and action to save the building ourselves through better management, we are now in a much stronger position. It took some effort and planning, but for now, we’ve saved our Centre.. Thankfully, in November 2010 Grand Lodge agreed to provide us $70k in seed funding, $45K loan (rightly) at interest and $25K Grant to be drawn once the loan was exhausted, but I’m convinced the most important ingredients were our smarts, commitment and optimism. Where there is a will, there is a way.. And yes, we’re on track to pay back our loan with interest.

When announcing we had hit $100K of revenue, I wrote the below

The old model of lodges providing the main income for a centre is dead. The sooner other Committees realised this, the sooner they can reposition to save rather than sell their centres. More lodges meeting at each centre is often seen as the answer – it is not. Indeed there are several Centres who realise this can actually compromise their commercial success. We should spread our lodges out and not concentrate them in fewer centres – this creates space and time for external leasing with minimum impact to lodges and external users. It keeps our footprint in communities. It preserves our wealth. Such an approach is contrary to the common and current one of selling buildings and concentrating lodges into fewer buildings......

We know that new Centres are generally created by selling between two to four buildings and pooling the sale proceeds to purchase or build a new Centre or renovate an old one (viz Keysborough, Sunshine, Box Hill, etc). For the new Box Hill Centre, we sold FIVE;

.....Even if we sacrifice only two centres to build each new one with a usable life of 40 years, in a hundred years and twenty years we will have reduced 50 Masonic centres to 6.25. That is not positioning for growth Brethren. And of course, we swap prime real estate (Camberwell, Canterbury, Kew) for lower value locations like Box Hill and hence erode our wealth and real estate legacy even more than we think. The time frame I gave is an optimistic and often four are sold for one. It will take 30-60 years for some to see the (terrible) results clearly that others clearly identify today......

In six years, we’ve learned a lot since we started on this journey when the CMC was approaching insolvency. We certainly understand our ideas and actions both evolve and become refined, but we also know that in doing nothing we are doomed. Further, we also know having achieved the major goals in our first strategic plan, we need to keep a sense of urgency and create new goals. Not being constantly vigilant and reviewing is what created Freemasonry’s current challenges. The way to deal with potential crises is by taking action today to see them never materialise.

Grand Lodge has been working on this too, and still seem to be encouraging consolidation. Five (!) (Camberwell, Canterbury, Kew, Box Hill, Blackburn) were all sold to fund the new “Box Hill Experiment”. Sure, it’s a lot of capital to “experiment” with, but they have created a first rate Masonic Centre there, but the cost was extremely high. The reality is saving Masonic centres is an experiment, where it’s okay to make some mistakes but never terminal ones which kill the patients. We also need to make best efforts and not make decisions on the fly without good data applied to a future beyond the horizon. Often our decisions seem to be taken on unfounded visions or by selecting an easy, short-sighted but ultimately poor “strategic plan” myopically driven solely by the two indisputable facts of reducing revenue and members. Unfortunately the “Box Hill Experiment” killed 5 patients – I would suggest a survival ratio of 5:1 is not a good treatment.

However, it is good to see Grand Lodge adding value at Kew and the old Box Hill Centre (100 apartments) with residential development prior to sale; at least that’s something better than our long history of just putting a for sale sign up and people getting excited about lackluster prices because they are large. Large, yes, maximised no.. Sadly, the sale of Camberwell Masonic Centre, an iconic albeit rundown building in a prime suburb on a corner site with a public car park for hundreds of cars, particularly seems tragic and short-sighted - whether sold as it was without any valued added, or if it was sold with a planning permit or constructed homes – either way, we gave up a huge opportunity, but more importantly a building and location we will never again be able to afford.

With these sales, did anyone notice that FREEMASONRY HAS GONE FROM THE CITY OF BOROONDARA? Boroondara is a collection of Melbourne’s inner eastern suburbs under the one local council totalling 60 square kilometres with a 2011 census density of 2,650 people per km2 . It includes many of Melbourne most expensive suburbs. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, no one seems to notice or care... And I’ve just realised, if we had not saved the Collingwood Masonic Centre – there would be no Masonic building left in the City of Yarra either (a geographically smaller area which had 4 centres. Yarra is 20km2 with a density of 3,704.5 people per km2). That would have been 80 km2 in inner Melbourne without a Masonic Centre...

These buildings DO NOT FAIL DUE TO FALLING NUMBERS OF MASONS. They fail due to faulted management models (or managers). Selling centres and moving lodges around does not solve the management problems – it simply delays the day of reckoning and erodes our wealth at the same time... We need to continue to look for bright minds to participate in the debate on how to deal with our property. Are you such a bright mind and are you willing to do something? Often people uninterested in ritual but committed to Freemasonry can find a niche in assisting buildings to not only survive but prosper. Please talk to me if you want to help.

When lodge rooms return to East Melbourne, it means moving east by road, we will have 17.9 km between East Melbourne and our first eastern Masonic centre (described as “Inner East” – but not if you live in Hawthorn...). Then from Box Hill to Ringwood we have 12.5 kms). Our footprints gets smaller and wider apart – perhaps because we are running towards the day when you can count Melbourne’s Masonic Centres on one hand – many advocate such a strategy with an Inner Easter (Box Hill), Outer Eastern, Western (Sunshine) and Southern (Keysborough) and Northern Masonic Centre. If we have a priority of community engagement, actually *having* Masonic centres in Communities seems like good start – they are one of the iconic differences which set our organisation apart from other groups like Rotary. Even local cricket, football and tennis clubs just don’t have a sports ground – they have a club room and leverage them for income and to engage new members and their communities. What’s Freemasonry doing ? It’s selling its “club houses”. Peak Bodies like Cricket Australia would see such a trend as a great threat, yet we don’t ? However such sporting clubs and also churches have one great edge on us – they are Land Tax exempt. Land Tax is a huge pressure on the financials of Masonic Centres and something we should try to get a complete exemption from.

At the Opening of Box Hill (aka Inner East Masonic Centre) it was said “Men joining Freemasonry today, expect the facilities in which they meet to be first class. The Inner East Masonic Centre achieves this objective". Further "The Consolidation of these Masonic meeting places is testament to the foresight of not only the Board of General Purposes but also of the Lodges meeting in this area, who have enthusiastically embraced the plan and worked hard to bring about its delivery". And “Men considering joining Freemasonry today expect the facilities of a Masonic Centre to be first class, financially sustainable and excellently maintained....This new facility will serve Freemasonry well for the coming generation.” (Note the generation is singular not plural).

I read this and I wonder if the Board of General Purposes is suffering from “Group Think” supported by the tempting and easy solution simply to consolidate assets reinforced by a 30 year conversation that doing so is the best and only solution.

I’m in two vibrant growing lodges full of young men, I know many of them value the history associated with a building like Collingwood. We encourage them to value our property heritage and participate in saving that history. At our working bees, we regularly have young men attend who meet in other Centres because a), they want to help and b) they want to preserve our physical history for today and the future. Men join Freemasonry for many reasons, but “Tradition” and “History” are often mentioned as attractions and meeting in modern office blocks seems counter intuitive, even when have managed to save few chairs, tables, paintings and the like from the historic buildings we’ve sold. I joined Freemasonry aged about 32 at Collingwood. The state of the building was not great, but it dripped history and was greatly appealing to me. Twelve years on I am a Past Master three times, have brought $250K into the Craft, and I can say meeting in an old building engaged me personally, sharing that story with others I know it engages them.

At Collingwood, over the last six years, we’ve proved a traditional Masonic centre can produce enough income to support itself. Having achieve the goals of our initial strategic plan, we are now looking develop the next to see the Centre to its 100th birthday and beyond. Over the next twenty years I’ll look for the best answer to the question, how do I make sure our building continues long after we are dead and regardless of whether our memberships is 10% of or ten times of the members we have today.

Solving that problem will be one of the steps I hope to take in my daily advancement of Masonic knowledge.