West St. Paul’s South Robert Street Business Association, a charitable gambling organization that has given millions of dollars to local causes, celebrates their 100th anniversary this year.
“Over the last 10 years, a lot of the impact that we’re making is about donating funds and putting on events for the community,” South Robert Street Business Association (SRSBA) President Katie Lowe said. “So not only are we supporting the city which pays for the events, but also we’re volunteering and setting up and organizing the whole of the event with a partner.”
SRSBA has been a community booster for a century, putting on major events and supporting local projects. Their impact can be felt far and wide. SRSBA contributes to a vast range of local organizations, including scholarships, sports teams, nonprofits, events, and families in hardship. Historically, SRSBA has funded beautification on Robert Street, hosted a holiday decoration contest, and given away hams and turkeys for holidays. Back in 1956, they contributed more than a third of the funds to build the city pool. More recently they contributed to the Art Park mosaic sculpture and the Two Rivers High School peace garden.
Last year, SRSBA gave away nearly $400,000. It’s hard to come up with a lifetime total, but it’s easily over $2 million in the last 20 years.
They also organize and support events for the community. Former SRSBA President Lambert Motz started Celebrate West St. Paul Days back in 1991 with financial support from SRSBA. While Celebrate West St. Paul Days shut down in 2020, SRSBA started several other local events including Touch a Truck events and the Winter and Summer Fun fests.
With the city planning to revive the annual event with a new Explore West St. Paul Days in August, SRSBA is able to take a step back from leading the annual Summer Fun Fest, but they’ll still contribute financially and offer support with volunteers.
“We want to support what the community wants,” said Lowe, who is also the executive director of the YMCA. “That means having the foresight to say we’re not in competition.”
How Does SRSBA Work?
SRSBA gets its funding from charitable gambling. They set up games at area bars and restaurants—whether it’s pull tabs, bingo, electronic games, etc.—and people pay money to gamble. Most of the money goes to paying prizes, but the remaining profit covers operating costs (usually equipment, rent, supplies, etc.), a hefty state tax (43% of their net profit last year), and the rest is given away to charitable organizations.
It’s all highly regulated by the state, with specific rules about allowable expenses. SRSBA received the highest possible five-star rating from the state last year, which means more than half of their income went to charitable contributions and taxes.
Another aim of the SRSBA is to support local business, whether it’s supporting fellow members or local businesses as a whole through shop local initiatives or cleaning up Robert Street. SRSBA paid for the flags and banners the city installed along Robert Street. SRSBA is also working with the city to create a potential marketing and business taxing district along Robert Street to help pay for ongoing maintenance and beautification.
Tom Klecatsky first got involved in SRSBA in 1984, but his family had been involved as far back as the early 1950s when his father first opened the business, Klecatsky Funeral Homes (now Klecatsky & Sons Funeral Homes).
“It’s like any business person, they want to give back to the community and certainly get recognized as being part of the community,” Klecatsky said. “It’s a two-way street to build your business by being around people and doing some good for them.”
While SRSBA claims 1922 as its founding year, the history is a little murkier. SRSBA Vice President John Ramsay recounts finding little documentation from the early years and 1922 is the earliest mention of the organization’s existence he could find.
SRSBA was originally founded to “help businessmen along the street get to know each other better,” and has been described as “the city’s most important civic contributor.” It’s unclear if the original incarnation included charitable gambling or if it started as an association of businesses and gambling came later.
Charter members included Leonard Binder (candy store), Henry Ehlers, William Gruening, Emil Langula (hardware store), Henry O. Mayer (drug store), Ed Nelson, William Otto (grocery store), William Schlukebier (meat market), Charlie Wagner, and Henry Zaun (auto garage). Many of those people owned key businesses along Robert Street in the 1920s, with Langula’s Hardware lasting the longest before closing in 2010.
Some of SRSBA’s early efforts included dog sled races along Robert Street in the 1920s and planting a Christmas tree in the middle of Robert Street in 1926.
Changes Over the Years
A lot has changed since SRSBA’s founding. Their primary funding used to come from a bingo operation at a bar on the southwest corner of Robert and Annapolis. In 1987 they transitioned to pull tabs at multiple locations throughout West St. Paul and now beyond.
Initially, SRSBA was known as the South Robert Street Businessmen’s Association. They dropped the exclusive focus on men in 1992, and today membership includes a number of women-fronted businesses, including Cardinal Corner, Mike’s Butcher Shop, A Precious Petals Florist, and 5-8 Grill and Tap, among others. This year Katie Lowe became the SRSBA’s first female president.
SRSBA also used to focus on businesses along Robert Street between Annapolis and Butler. Initially, that was the major business district in West St. Paul before it expanded south. SRSBA changed with the times and welcomed businesses located anywhere on Robert Street, then anywhere in West St. Paul, and today even includes businesses and organizations located outside West St. Paul.
“That evolved over the years because we ran out of business people,” said Klecatsky. “The whole area changed. The reality was the business community along Robert Street moved south.”
Struggling With Perception
SRSBA does struggle with their reputation for various reasons. SRSBA representatives weighing in on political issues has rankled some people, including the organization’s critiques of the Robert Street reconstruction project (though in 2021 former president Dave Motz admitted, “I think it worked out for the best,”).
When Katie Lowe first joined SRSBA nearly 10 years ago, she was warned about it being a “good old boys’ club.” But that perception didn’t pan out.
“There were certainly leaders—male leaders—who had been small business owners and who had been in the community for a long time and had this really rich history of the community and different networks and who were very engaged and connected to the city,” Lowe said. “But I didn’t see some of the negative things that you associate with that term.”
Part of the perception problem is that despite pouring millions of dollars into the community, the organization is not very well known. Residents don’t always connect the major events or behind the scenes support with SRSBA.
“I was so surprised when I got in there—whenever it was, maybe 10 years ago—because there was no Facebook, there was no website of any value,” said Ramsay. Now SRSBA has an updated website and is more active on Facebook, frequently posting photos of the giant checks they deliver to local causes.
Another potential problem comes from the perception of gambling itself. The organization follows strict state guidelines and financial reports are public information, but for some there’s still a negative stigma. But that’s not an issue the SRSBA frequently confronts.
“We want people to gamble responsibly and within their means,” Lowe said. “[But] we tend to look at how much good we’re able to do in the community.”
SRSBA isn’t the only charitable gambling organization in the city. The West St. Paul Youth Hockey Association, the West St. Paul Commercial Club, and the Tapemark Charity Pro-Am Golf Tournament have all done charitable gambling.
“We’ve been generous over the years, that’s for sure,” Klecatsky said. “I guess that’s one positive thing about people wanting to throw their money away gambling.”
Another 100 Years
Leading an organization with 100 years of history? “It’s humbling,” said Lowe.
“Part of what I can do for the association is provide some additional structure to what we’re already doing to ensure the longevity for another 100 years,” Lowe said. “There are a lot of moving pieces to an organization with such a rich history and impact.”
That lasting impact is really what defines SRSBA.
“Donating to some of these people in need is a big thing,” said Dave Motz, former SRSBA president. “Really makes you feel good to be able to help people that really need the help.”
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