Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 29, 2011

Two's a crowd?

Plan for second Palo Alto Lions Club draws roars from existing club members

by Jeff Carr

At a meeting of the Palo Alto City Council last month, Jack Van Eton announced an opportunity for District 4-C4 of Lions Clubs International, which covers the Peninsula, to form a new club in Palo Alto. Despite the organization's reputation for community service, the seemingly innocuous announcement didn't sit well with one group: the Lions Club of Palo Alto.

Current club members said that creation of a second Palo Alto branch is unnecessary in a time of dwindling membership and could even create unwelcome competition between the groups.

"We are not for it," said Robert Stoudt, who was the president of the existing Palo Alto club until July 1. "We'd like to see the district build up our numbers."

"The word I would use is 'disappointment,'" new president Bill Downey said. The club's roster of 31 members puts it "on the larger side," he admitted, but numbers are dropping. "We're stretched."

Downey said an ideal club size might be 40, and he too would like to see the district help with recruiting instead of forming what he sees as a competitor.

Al Russell, extension chair for the district, said the rationale for starting a second Palo Alto branch s that one club can't serve the needs of a community of more than 60,000 residents.

Russell has helped start four other clubs on the Peninsula in recent years. But in this instance, problems arose because then-district governor Mike Simonini left the Palo Alto club and its board of directors out of the process.

Simonini disagreed, saying he'd visited the Palo Alto club several months ago to talk about the plan.

While he described benefits to them of starting a new group, "They took it as though I was trying to kill their club," he said.

The Palo Alto club, in operation since 1925, is best known for its annual event, the Concours d'Elegance. The Concours displays and awards prizes to classic and exotic automobiles and the proceeds support a Stanford athletic scholarship and about 40 area charities. This year's Concours brought in about 10,000 attendees and $100,000. Downey said the event is by far the largest Lions Club event on the Peninsula, and it necessitates greater numbers than other clubs.

The event is also a magnet for club membership. Downey was upset to learn of district representatives soliciting membership for the new club at this year's Concours.

"I don't think too highly of that tactic," he said. "That's our turf."

Russell said the district wants to be as non-intrusive as possible to what he said is "a damn good club" in Palo Alto. That's why he and others have been advertising and holding informational meetings mostly on the southern end of the city. That's also why Van Eton announced the district's intentions to the City Council.

"There's no doubt in my mind that a city this size can handle another service organization," Russell said. Palo Alto is the only city in the district with a population of more than 50,000 but only one Lions Club. Even smaller Menlo Park has two. Russell said that in his experience, two clubs in the same city are more likely to complement each other than compete. "Once this gets up and running, I know that (the existing Palo Alto club) will benefit. They will gain members as a result of this," he said.

Simonini agreed. Twice the public exposure of the Lions Club activities will garner twice the interest, he said. Prospective Lions will have a choice of which set of causes to support and which meeting to attend. Simonini also noted that the current Palo Alto club focuses the majority of its time on the Concours, and "car shows aren't for everybody."

Lions Clubs aid in a variety of causes worldwide and local clubs may select their own charities. But the Lions in general emphasize diabetes, hearing and especially vision issues, ever since Helen Keller encouraged members in 1925 to become "knights of the blind," Downey said. Members collect eyeglasses and pay for eye exams for those in need.

According to Russell, members usually pay less than $10 in monthly dues and have no time commitments other than to "do what they can." There is no paid staff at the local or district level.

Membership is down in all service clubs. Lions Clubs in East Palo Alto and Atherton have recently been shuttered. However, Lions are often members of clubs in the cities where they work, not live. In fact, only a handful of the current Palo Alto Lions are actually from Palo Alto. Russell said East Palo Alto didn't have the infrastructure to support a club, and the 60-year-old Atherton club failed to seek new members and thus shrank over time.

While Downey laments the district's decision, he doesn't fear for his own club's future.

"Our membership is loyal and our charities are loyal," he said.

Editorial Intern Jeff Carr can be emailed at jcarr@paweekly.com.

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