A national museum to honor veterans is goal for site near I-75 in Georgetown

Site near I-75 eyed for $50 million project

gkocher1@herald-leader.comNovember 11, 2011 

If a trio of men can realize their shared dream, Georgetown would be the home of a national museum to honor veterans from the Korean War and Vietnam to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Web site — Vmmky.org — was launched in late October to publicize and raise money for the National Veterans Memorial Museum. The museum would be "devoted to the history, service and memory of veterans of the United States armed forces," according to its incorporation papers. Its directors are Lexington resident Todd Strecker, Georgetown Mayor Everette Varney and Scott County Realtor Obey Wallen.

The museum would collect and transcribe the personal stories of veterans, and have displays that would tell about the conflicts since World War II ended, said Strecker, chairman of the directors.

"What do we exist to do?" he asked. "Simple: Education and information.

"We can see among the young, they have no understanding of these conflicts. What effect did those have on us as a nation? What did it cost us? What did we invest? How did it shape us? How did it shape the world?"

The project is an ambitious one. Its first phase alone would cost an estimated $50 million, and Strecker said that money would come from private donations only.

"No government money. No state money. Nothing," he said. "Everything comes from individuals, family members of veterans, veterans themselves or people who want the stories told. No public dollars."

The men are preparing to have mailers sent to solicit donations and annual memberships. The organization also has filed to become a non-profit so donations can be tax-deductible.

Strecker emphasized that donations would go directly to a bank in Georgetown, not to its directors.

"This is no Ponzi scheme," he said. "None of us is going to get a dime."

The organization has a site in mind for the museum's location, but Strecker said he could not reveal it until an option to purchase is secured for 50- to 150-acre site. He would only say that the prospective site was within the City of Georgetown and "not far" from Interstate 75.

That location is key because Strecker thinks accessibility in the heartland would make the museum appealing to those who might be put off by flying to major metropolitan areas such as Washington D.C., home of the National World War II Memorial, or New Orleans, home of the National World War II Museum.

"We are accessible," Strecker said. "Washington isn't. You can't park. You can't get to it. It's a royal pain to get to the Vietnam (Veterans Memorial) Wall."

Interstate 75 is a major travel corridor, with more than 50,000 vehicles going up and down the artery daily past Georgetown.

Lucas/Schwering Architects of Lexington has assembled some preliminary interior and exterior concepts for the museum, and they have been posted on the Web site. The site contains short synopses of the conflicts since World War II. The proposed museum would deal only with those conflicts from the Cold War to the present because World War II is covered comprehensively at other institutions.

Strecker said the museum had a booth at the Georgetown Air Fest on Oct. 15. The show at Georgetown-Scott County Regional Airport attracted 5,000 people, said Martin Thomas, a member of the airport's board of directors.

Thomas, who served in the Army's Third Infantry Division in West Germany in the late 1980s, said he thought the museum "would be a positive thing for the community and the region. I'm proud to have served my country, and anything that can celebrate the service of men and woman in uniform is a positive thing not only for the veterans but the younger people, too."

Strecker also is making the rounds to civic groups such as Rotary and veterans' organizations to solicit support.

Mike McCurry, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 680 in Lexington, said he had spoken to Strecker about the museum but did not wish to comment publicly about the project until he learned more about it.

Wallen, one of the museum directors, said he had received positive feedback.

"Everybody we've talked to said it was the best idea, the perfect place," Wallen said. "I think this will be the No. 1 place in America for people to come and see and hear the story about how to protect America."

Strecker acknowledged that trying to start a new museum during a recession — when many existing institutions are under stress because of shrinking revenue, hiring freezes and deferred maintenance — was a challenge.

Some 71 percent of museums reported economic stress in 2010, according to a survey released by the American Association of Museums.

And just this week, The Associated Press reported that fund-raisers for a new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta still need to raise $15 million so construction can begin in February as scheduled. The existing hall in South Bend, Ind., has had low attendance.

Starting a new museum "is challenging in the best of times," said Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Association of Museums.

Merritt said the first question a new museum should ask is, "Who cares?"

"That's the real determiner of whether it has a chance of getting off the ground," Merritt said. "If there are enough people who care — if there's either one very wealthy person who cares or a whole bunch of people willing to kick in little bits who care — it will start up."

If organizers of the veterans museum "see themselves as a national museum, they need to carve out a nationally distinct niche, otherwise they will be competing with people who have already dedicated their time and resources to similar museums," Merritt said.

Organizers of the proposed Georgetown museum say they are confident that veterans and their families across the country would come forward to support the institution.

Strecker, 71, retired in 2005 as a University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension specialist who assisted small communities in their economic-development efforts. He served in a civilian capacity during Vietnam and said he lost 21 friends in that conflict.

"That's the reason I'm involved," Strecker said. "This was my war. This was my generation."

Wallen, 68, a quartermaster at VFW Post 7054 in Georgetown, served in Chu Chi, Vietnam, where he worked in the maintenance of Huey helicopters. "We had 15 people killed in our unit in the 12 months that I was there," he said.

Varney, 73, was Georgetown mayor from 1999 and 2006, and was elected again in 2010.

Strecker said he has had a dream to start the museum for 40 years.

"It's going to take us 10 to 12 years to get this done," he said. "Fine, then I will be 81, 82, 83. I will be satisfied. If we've got this thing at the level that I think it can be in that period of time, I will feel 'mission accomplished.' I will feel that I have done something really worthwhile."

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