October 21, 2020 632 PM
PRESIDIO — “That was the first place I danced with a girl,” Joe Portillo says of the old American Legion building in Presidio. When Portillo was attending Presidio High School in the 1980s, the Presidio branch of the American Legion, a nonprofit run by and dedicated to U.S. war veterans, was still a major center of civic life in the border city.
“It was like the disco,” Portillo says. He attended when the Legion held “sock hops,” a type of dance party that was once a feature of American teenage life. Portillo married that girl he danced with as a teenager; later, he also became the city administrator. But the American Legion building didn’t do so well: By the 1990s or early 2000s, Portillo said, it had closed its doors and was starting to fall into disrepair.
Presidio’s branch of the American Legion dates back to at least the 1930s. But “the World War I and World War II vets got older and older,” Portillo said. Eventually, there just wasn’t enough interest in keeping the space up and running.
But, Portillo stresses, “we still have many vets in Presidio.” And Portillo, a veteran himself, wasn’t the only one who wanted to bring it back to life.
Now, the local branch of the American Legion could soon be open again. Volunteers like Portillo have spent months working on repairs and gathering donations. By November, he estimates, the space should be ready for guests.
Those efforts got a boost this month, when the Presidio Municipal Development District presented American Legion with a $30,000 check to help operations. Around September, the city also donated around $10,000, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson said.
“The American Legion is getting a total makeover,” PMDD Executive Director Brad Newton said of the investment, “and will soon be used again for public events.”
In an unexpected twist, Presidians may have the coronavirus crisis to thank for the American Legion’s return to the city. The city makes some of its funds through hotel/motel taxes, Portillo explains — money that might typically be slated for festivals and other public events. But with social distancing guidelines in and public events out, local officials were looking for other investments to make in the community.
Likewise, Portillo said, “there have always been veterans who said, ‘It sure would be nice to reopen it.’ But we were busy with life.” As ordinary life ground mostly to a halt — and as some workers and residents found themselves with an unexpected bounty of free time — volunteers had more bandwidth to focus on restorations.
Portillo hesitates to put an exact date on these recent efforts to revamp the American Legion, but an important development happened in June of this year. That month, the organization was cleared by the IRS as a 501(c)3, giving it official nonprofit status.
“Until we had 501(c)3 status, we couldn’t operate as a nonprofit,” Portillo explains. “We couldn’t go ask for monies. We didn’t have any money in the bank.”
Getting sign-off from the IRS changed that, Portillo says. “July, August, September, October — it’s been full speed ahead since then.”
Though the American Legion primarily serves veterans, Portillo stresses the new center will “absolutely” be open for all residents in Presidio. He imagines it once again becoming an important meeting point in the community, a place for couples to hold wedding parties and for young girls to have quinceañeras.
The organization has applied for a liquor and a food and beverage license. Portillo hopes to have a full bar, plus a “very very simple menu,” with items like chili bowls and beef stew for dinner. But, he stresses, those details “are still moving parts.”
To help stretch funds, people in the organization have been handling many repairs themselves. Portillo credits Ryan Evans, a Border Patrolman and a commander at the center, for taking the lead on the project.
Another important player: resident David Lovato, who serves as the group’s adjunct.
“He really is the one doing a lot of the boots-on-the-ground work,” Portillo said. “He has a lot of carpentry experience. He’s flipped some houses. He’s handy with a saw, as an electrician, and with plumbing.”
Ferguson, the Presidio mayor, remembers when the old American Legion was still up and running. He tells a similar story to Portillo: as vets in the city got older, interest waned and eventually the space closed its doors.
In an interview this week, Ferguson was excited the American Legion was making a return to his city.
“I think it’ll be a great place for the community to congregate,” he said. “People can go down, watch the big-screen TV, or maybe grab a beer. It’ll be nice to see that come back to life.”