• After 96 years in San Francisco, the American Legion will move its state office to a former bank building in Sanger.
• Nearly a dozen jobs will move from the Bay Area to Sanger. There is a potential for new jobs to be created in the future.
• The legion has about 88,000 members statewide.
When Sanger’s John “Doc” Bart was asked to lead the search for the American Legion’s new state headquarters, he didn’t know it would end at a vacant bank building in the heart of the small east Fresno County city.
Bart, who is on the state organization’s executive board and is a member of Post 23 in Sanger, cast a net between Bakersfield and Fresno along the Highway 99 corridor. He almost gave up when the search revealed buildings that cost $1 million more than budgeted and others that cost too much to renovate.
Then a drive through Sanger a month ago, where Bart was once the police chief, led him to the Westamerica bank building that has sat empty on Seventh Street for three years. Bingo!
The organization’s 30 district commanders voted on Saturday to move its California headquarters, and nearly a dozen jobs, out of the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center and into the Sanger bank building by the middle of this summer.
Sanger’s improving economy, growing housing stock and strong school district sold the city. And its veteran-friendly community — about 700 veterans live in the Sanger area — was a plus.
“If you move to Sanger, you will become part of the community,” Bart said. “If you move to the other cities, you’re just another nonprofit. That was the point that I think all of the decision makers were most impressed with and they loved the building at first sight.”
The American Legion is a service organization for veterans and their families. The agency assists with filing health claims, helps veterans get wheelchairs, builds ramps, and connects veterans with financial aid if they hit hard times.
The state office has operated in San Francisco for 96 years, the last 81 years in a ground floor office at the War Memorial.
“We’ve been looking to move for almost 30 years,” said Janet Wilson, the Legion’s first female commander. “San Francisco is a wonderful city. It’s got stumbling blocks — transportation, parking, cost, crime, homelessness. It’s a major metropolis and has everything that entails.”
Veterans are moving to the suburbs as a result of the Bay Area’s declining affordability, and some of the local posts and supporting groups have gone with them, Wilson said.
When the War Memorial, was retrofitted for earthquakes two years ago, the American Legion was forced to move temporarily. The group is scheduled to move back into a more costly third-floor space this August.
But there’s a problem. Handicapped veterans would have to park in the back of the building, walk a city block to the front, hop on the building’s only elevator and walk another block back to get to the office, Wilson said.
“It’s really not ADA compliant,” even though there is an elevator, she said. “Not to our veterans.”
The search for a new office started in January. The Central Valley was the target for easy access for people who live in the north and those in the south. There are about 88,000 Legion members statewide.
The Legion sent letters to Valley cities about wanting to relocate. Sanger, which the U.S. Census estimates has a population of 24,682 people, responded. It fit the city’s plan to revive downtown.
“You don’t get it by sitting back and wanting it,” said City Manager Brian Haddix. “You get it by going after it and being the most worthy.”
Sanger bills itself as the Nation’s Christmas Tree City, but is also known to support its veterans. The city offers water and sewer bill discounts for disabled veterans. It celebrates major military holidays. The Veterans Day parade passes by the new Legion building.
When Wilson stopped by for a visit, the city rolled out the red carpet.
“I said ‘these people love this city,’ ” Wilson said. “They want us. In San Francisco, veterans are not a commodity they seek.”
The two-floor, 8,300-square-foot former bank sits on the corner of Seventh and P Street, across from the Sanger Women’s Club and a block from City Hall. The sale price has not been finalized, but is somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, Bart said.
The building will be renovated into new offices and classrooms. The second floor may become museum space, said David Phillips, president and chief executive officer of the Sanger Chamber of Commerce. There may also be additional space for someone else to rent, he said.
Wilson is excited about the move, but convincing her staff to come along will take some time, she said. The Legion has seven employees and its auxiliary has four part-time positions that will all work out of Sanger. There is a potential to add jobs in the future.
Sanger residents are happy about the opportunity to show off their town. Some posted on social media websites that they would like to volunteer at the Legion stuffing envelopes. Others hope having the state office will attract more business, like a hotel, to the area.
Phillips, with the chamber of commerce, said he has been bombarded since Monday with phone calls from interested hotel developers.
The city already has plans in May to unveil a bus transit system that will operate from Memorial Day to Labor Day chauffeuring visitors from Sanger to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.
“Maybe people will be interested in the activities and events we have here,” said Cheryl Senn, a community leader who operates an online magazine in the office building across from the American Legion’s new home. “It will be good for the economy, to contribute to local businesses.”
Josie Lopez, president of the women’s club, said she and other members hate to have empty buildings next to the well-kept, white house they meet at across the street.
“Westamerica hasn’t been out that long, but you want to see growth in your town,” Lopez said. “I want our little town to grow. For someone as big as (the Legion) to say they want to come to Sanger, that’s kind of a big deal.”