County holds off on war memorial OK

Friday, June 22, 2007

When Rodger Brown sat down before the Cape Girardeau County Commission on Thursday, he knew opposition was growing to his grand vision of a large memorial to veterans and their families in the Common Pleas Courthouse Park.

A group of prominent downtown business owners and others interested in historic preservation had written a letter to the commissioners questioning the choice of location and the lack of public discussion of the proposal. But Brown pressed ahead, telling commissioners that he had sought and received support from veterans in the form of encouragement and money.

And then he told the two commissioners present, Gerald Jones and Larry Bock, that any delays in implementing the memorials planned by VietNow, a Vietnam War veterans group, would be remembered. Commissioners, he said, needed to ignore the objections and approve the proposal so that a World War I veterans memorial could be put in place in time for a July 4 unveiling.

"To wait until the 11th hour is ludicrous," Brown said. "You should think of the veterans who are going to be insulted. As politicians, that should be a consideration. I am not saying that as a threat, but that is what you live on."

Commissioners wouldn't budge from a determination to seek more public input and study before agreeing to allow the memorial.

VietNow put a memorial to Vietnam War veterans in place last July 4. The seven-foot-tall marble monolith stands near Lorimier Street on the west side of the courthouse park. The courthouse is operated by the county, which is responsible for the maintenance of the park, but is owned by the city.

In addition to the World War I memorial, Brown's plan includes a World War II memorial, a Korean War memorial and an "Octagon of Honor" with 10-foot sides to honor the mothers of war dead.

Jones noted that the county leases the courthouse and the surrounding park from the city and the large size of the memorial will require detailed discussions and approval from the city. Don McQuay, director of public works for the county, presented drawings showing that memorial would stretch 26 feet across the lawn.

The first time he heard about the plans, Jones said, was Tuesday. There may be a more appropriate place for the memorials, he said.

"We need some more communication," he said. "We don't want to be involved in something that will bring all sorts of controversy. This is a good project, and we want it to remain a good project."

The city has discussed the project with leaders of VietNow and Commissioner Jay Purcell, who was absent from the meeting. Purcell said Brown, feeling the crush of time, asked for time on the commissioners' Thursday agenda despite being told commissioners would not approve the request unless he had letters of support from the city and other downtown interests, including Old Town Cape.

"I asked for this to be postponed," Purcell said.

The proposed memorial is outlined on the lawn of the courthouse near Lorimier Street. In a letter written by Southeast Missourian publisher Jon Rust and signed by 10 others, including Marla Mills, director of Old Town Cape, and John Wyman, owner of several downtown buildings, objections included obstructed view of older monuments and the lack of public discussion. All of them signed as private citizens, not as representatives of their businesses or organizations, Rust said.

The park, Rust wrote, "would be seriously altered, not necessarily for the better."

The park is home to 14 dedications and memorials for everything from fallen police officers to the fact that Cape Girardeau paved streets with concrete for the first time in 1912. Some dedicate trees, some are small stones with plaques and others stand tall, including the fountain dedicated to Union soldiers of the Civil War.

While Brown has been talking about the proposal since August, officials said they hadn't seen details of the proposal until recent weeks. Dan Muser, director of parks for the city, said he, city manager Doug Leslie and city planner Kent Bratton met with Brown and Purcell but made no promises.

"It was presented to the city as more or less that the county was OK with it," Muser said. "I don't know that the city had any major problems, but apparently some other people did."

Brown was joined by seven other members of his group made a pitch for the memorial. Opposition at this point is late and an attack on veterans, he said.

"We believe that delaying this placement and dedication undermines the honor and respect we are trying to pay our veterans, past and present," Brown said. "It is a terrible slap in the face."

The memorial could still be placed in the location Brown wants, Jones said. But he asked for letters of support from the city and additional public discussion. "What I have found just recently is that there is objections to the location of this," Jones said. "The unfortunate thing is that to get all that done will take a little time."

335-6611, extension 126

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