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Anchorage Veterans' Memorial Renovation

Showing community support for sacrifices made

Rendering courtesy of USKH Inc.

It was 26 years ago when Vietnam veteran Tim Benintendi was appointed to the Veterans’ Action Committee by Mayor Tony Knowles, also a Vietnam Veteran. The committee was tasked with planning, designing and fundraising for a new Anchorage Veterans’ Memorial. The original memorial was on L Street between Ninth and 10th avenues, and was constructed and dedicated in 1952 by Spenard VFW Post 1685. The improved memorial was to be a more substantial symbol for the increasing veteran residents, given Anchorage’s robust growth since the 1950s. The result was the memorial we have today on the park strip—on I Street between Ninth and 10th avenues.

Fast forward to 2007, and Benintendi returns. Then Mayor Mark Begich appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to address complaints about the deteriorating condition of the memorial at a time when Alaskans were becoming casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Benintendi, as a two-tour Vietnam veteran, understands the value of such public symbols. “I think this town needs to keep its memorial in very fine shape. We’ve had three wars since Vietnam—four actions if you count Grenada,” he says.

The Task Force determined a plan for the renovation, which called for the relocation of the Purple Heart monument; adding a Fallen Warrior statue consisting of boots, helmet and rifle; and adding two sculptured screen panels designed by the artist team of Shala Dobson and Jim Dault. The cost is estimated to be $1.5 million.

In 2010, the Anchorage Veterans’ Memorial Committee was formed, of which Benintendi is chair. “We have raised some money from the state, and the city has bonded for some money. Then the Rasmuson Foundation came through with a large donation, and the Atwood Foundation. We’ve raised a lot of money from individuals and companies of all sizes.”

 

Goal Almost Met

After three years, the Committee is closing in on its goal. “Now we are down to needing $140,000 or less,” says Benintendi. “In early December 2012, the Rasmuson Foundation came back again and gave us a $100,000 challenge grant—dollar for dollar.” This means that the foundation will match every dollar the Anchorage Veterans’ Memorial Committee raises from now up to June 30 this year. “I’m pretty confident we’ll have all that money raised by the target: June 30.”

The committee joined with the Anchorage Park Foundation to help with fundraising and project management. “We didn’t want to go out and form our own 501(c)3, so we became a subaccount of theirs,” Benintendi says. “They deal with park land, and this project is on city park land. They have all the tools in place to receive funds, manage our accounts and pay expenses.” The Anchorage Park Foundation partnership allowed the committee to focus on the goal and limit the “headaches,” plus all contributions are tax-deductible.

Mayor Dan Sullivan and the Anchorage Assembly put a $100,000 bond package for the project on the ballot for April. So if voters approve the bond and the fundraising meets the June 30 Rasmuson challenge deadline, the project will be fully funded. With that confidence, Benintendi says that Parks & Rec can put the project out to bid. With timely bidding, the winning bidder could be picked and construction could be planned for this June and July.

“I’m going to keep raising money until I’m sure we have enough,” says Benintendi. “You can’t predict what the vote will be, and some park bonds go down, so I’m going to presume that vote might go down. We are going on all fronts—if we get enough, we’ll quit.”

 

Community Leadership

One big positive thing that stood out for Benintendi throughout the project was the response of community leaders. “As of right now, the state has put in $500,000, part of that from Governor Palin and the Legislature then, and part from Governor Parnell and the Legislature two years ago. Mayor Sullivan has done quite a bit to help advance this memorial, not only the fundraising but supporting and making sure Parks & Rec is on the wave length, which they always have been. They’ve been great.”

“All the big players responded. I didn’t get swept under the rug,” he says. “I think they buy into the reasoning that we need community symbols to remember and honor the sacrifices of a whole lot of people.” Those big players are the Rasmuson Foundation, Atwood Foundation and the personal donation of Mrs. Mary Louise Rasmuson. Before she died, she gave the project $100,000 from her own funds. “She was a retired Army Colonel and one of the first heads of the Women’s Army Corps, a World War II veteran,” Benintendi says.

Alaska USA Federal Credit Union is the largest single corporate donor, giving $50,000 in the first year of fundraising. “Community leadership, state, local, corporate, private foundations and legacy families—like Mrs. Rasmuson—they were inspired, they understood the need, and they wanted to make it happen,” Benintendi says.

 

Project Bidding Imminent

This time around, the project has to be bid in its entirety; the bidder decides the subcontractors, equipment and materials. So there is no opportunity for in-kind donations. “That’s been the difference. All the money had to be raised and in hand before we could break ground and go ahead and reconstruct the site,” he says. “We have a design plan; architectural drawings are on the shelf. We have everything we need. As soon as the city opens the bid process, and then finally selects a bidder, we are ready to go. I don’t envision any problems.”

For the original memorial project, “back then, we only needed about $115,000,” Benintendi says. “We used it all, but we had $15,000 leftover.” He and the members of the Veterans’ Action Committee noticed that the Lady Marines Association had been watering the flowers throughout spring and summer at the memorial site. The women were bringing five-gallon buckets by car and hauling them to water the plants. “When we realized that, we put in a water line out there and paid for it with the residual funds from the project. So now they have a faucet at the base of the monument.”

For this project, if all the money comes through—the public votes in favor of the bond package and the Rasmuson challenge goals are met—then extra money would be available at project completion. Should that be the case, the Committee has already agreed to set up a perpetual maintenance fund. “Everybody—all those foundations, and Mrs. Rasmuson, and Alaska USA—all the big players agreed that, yes, if you have a little funding left over, set up a perpetual maintenance fund.”

Lack of maintenance is partially responsible for the current poor condition of the memorial. The original memorial was assigned to the Parks & Rec budget, which had been under some pressure during those years. “Those (budgets) are usually first to get cut. Like the library,” Benintendi says. “Some things deteriorate from lack of maintenance. The concrete was just a matter of the weather impacting it for all those years.” The lights under the trees that illuminated the memorial had been broken by vandals within the first and second year of installation. “Parks & Rec gave up on fixing them because they would just get damaged again.”

In the new memorial, the names of Alaska’s fallen will be transferred onto black granite, etched in larger letters; the granite is much easier to clean up and maintain.

What happens to the old bronze plaques? Once the project is finished, Benintendi hopes this surplus property will find a new home, such as at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport or the Dena’ina Center. He would like the panels to be in a public area that gets a lot of traffic, especially tourist traffic. “Some public, visible place,” he says. “There’s a lot of Native Alaskans listed—especially from Korea and Vietnam—a lot of people don’t realize that. We can’t just forget those who serve—who they are—there’s a real human price tag on all this.”

The renovation also provides opportunity for technological upgrades. The public address system, which was basically just sockets, will be upgraded during the renovation. The new equipment will include a lockable control panel for electronic lighting, a new public address system, phones and more. Lighting of the memorial will also be greatly improved—not only for aesthetics, but for safety.

The projected construction time is about 90 days. Provided that voting, bidding, awarding and construction go as planned, a rededication of the renovated memorial could take place in early September.

“I try to reinforce the fact that this memorial needs to be brought up to the standards that justify the sacrifices of those people who have been in the military—not just people who have been wounded or killed in war, but those who served and their families,” Benintendi says. “Families make sacrifices. And that should not be lost on the public. That’s the one thing I try to leave as a lasting impression about what we are doing.”

 

Margaret Sharpe writes from Palmer.

  This originally appeared in the April 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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