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National D-Day Memorial in financial trouble

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

(Photo)
The National D-Day Memorial is dedicated June 6, 2001, in Bedford, Va. With the celebration this week of D-Day's 65th anniversary comes news the foundation that runs a national memorial to the Normandy landing is in financial trouble.
(Steve Helber ~ Associated Press)
BEDFORD, Va. -- On the eve of the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the foundation that runs the National D-Day Memorial is facing financial trouble.

Donations are down in the poor economy. The primary base of support -- World War II veterans -- is dying off. And the privately funded memorial is struggling to draw visitors because it's hundreds of miles from a major city.

Facing the prospect of cutting staff and hours, the memorial's president believes its only hope for long-term survival is to be taken over by the National Park Service or by a college or university.

So far, he hasn't found any takers.

"All institutions are in various states of privation of one kind or another," foundation president William McIntosh said. "Everybody's endowment has been slapped around pretty badly by the economy."

But by contrast, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which opened as a D-Day museum in 2000, is thriving with an $8 million budget supported largely by 120,000 memberships.

The Bedford memorial opened eight years ago at a ceremony attended by President George W. Bush. It was built in Bedford because the community about 115 miles west of Richmond suffered among the nation's highest per-capita losses on D-Day.

Several thousand visitors are expected at the memorial Saturday to mark the anniversary.

Members of Congress were reminded of the memorial when they attended a special screening Tuesday night of a new documentary about Bedford's role at Normandy titled "Bedford: The Town They Left Behind," hosted by Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.

The outdoor museum tells the story of the Normandy invasion in sculptures of soldiers and their leaders. Air jets shoot geysers of water to mimic enemy gunfire as bronze figures of soldiers struggle for shore in a reflecting pool. Some 10,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded in the landing.

The memorial's attention to detail evokes an emotional response for those who lived through D-Day, said James A. Huston, a World War II veteran and historian who will receive the French Legion of Honor on Friday in Paris.

"The whole idea is well done," said Huston, retired dean of nearby Lynchburg College. "It tells the story."

The privately owned foundation faced financial problems soon after its 2001 opening, prompting a criminal investigation and Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Federal fraud charges eventually were dropped against the memorial's former director, Richard B. Burrow, who led efforts to build the monument in time for many aging World War II veterans to see it. High construction costs put the foundation some $7 million in debt, but McIntosh said donations erased the deficit by 2006.

Still, as McIntosh looks ahead, he sees a bleak future.

"It makes me sad for America that we can't do a bit better than this," he said.

Expenses run about $2.2 million yearly, only $600,000 of which comes from visitors.

Slightly more than half of visitors come from outside Virginia, McIntosh said, but the memorial cannot count on increases at the gate. It is 200 miles from the tourist crowds of Washington.

Salaries and benefits for 20-plus employees amount to nearly $1 million a year, according to Internal Revenue Service documents. McIntosh said the memorial relies on a crew of 220 volunteers for much of the work of putting on programs and maintaining about 20 landscaped acres.

McIntosh said layoffs and reduced hours will be necessary in a few weeks, but even those measures will not be enough to keep the gates open for long.

The foundation has just $300,000 available to pay operating expenses, he said, and an endowment of $400,000.

Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, whose district includes the memorial, plans to introduce legislation this week to transfer the site to the Park Service.

A Park Service spokesman said new parks are created primarily by Congress, which proposes them and then authorizes the Park Service to study whether they meet the criteria for a national park.

"It's not a common everyday occurrence," said Phil Sheridan, of the Park Service's regional office in Philadelphia.

McIntosh thinks the Bedford memorial would be an ideal companion museum to the World War II Memorial in Washington, which is overseen by the Park Service.

The foundation president has courted other potential owners including Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Liberty, about 25 miles away, is hosting a D-Day conference this week as part of the memorial's anniversary celebration, but it declined to take any responsibility for the site.

McIntosh believes the memorial's mission of telling the D-Day story would be better served if it could build an interpretive center. But that would take money the memorial does not expect to get, he said.

"I don't think you do anybody any favors to keep making something bigger and better if you can't see a way to feed it," he said.

McIntosh, 65, would like to see the memorial's future secure before his contract ends in a year.

"It is in a very good position to move to the next level, to open a new chapter on its story," he said.


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