Veterans Commission Deploys Plan A, Debates Plan B
By Michael McAllister
Three of the current four-member Veterans Memorial Commission met in regular session at 5:15 p.m. on Monday, March 13, at the Drake Community Library, and received an update on the proposal to establish a national artist residency focusing on veterans in Grinnell’s Veterans Memorial Building. The commission’s support for the project has been established.
Commission members on hand (from left to right above) were Marie Andrews, the commission’s recording secretary, Gwen Rieck, vice chair, and Leo Lease, chair.
Lease opened the meeting by thanking the approximately twenty people in attendance for their interest in the commission and veterans’ affairs and, in the case of veterans, for their service to their country.
Using the analogy of a short timer’s calendar—something familiar to anyone who has served in the military—Lease commented that such a calendar geared toward the levy vote in November would list 246 days.
“There are a lot of important things that have to happen before that time,” Lease stated, “if we have any hope of having things turning out the way we might like them to turn out.” He urged attendees to talk to people, to generate interest, to solicit opinions, and to support the current plan for revitalizing the Veterans Memorial Building.
Discussion of that plan—the Central Park Artist Residency—took up most of the hour-long session that followed.
To recap previously published material, a proposal submitted by Tom Lacina would convert the function of the Veterans Memorial Building to an artist residency program committed to veterans. The program calls for approximately fifty artists per year to come to Grinnell, reside in the building, interact with the community, and promote the arts through creation, display, and instruction. Preference would go to artists who have served in the military, although non-veteran artists and undergraduates might participate in some programs.
Services involving art therapy to veterans dealing with PTSD are also possible. Other potential concentrations include an emerging artists program, drawing young people, and intensive artisan instruction, bringing experts in fields such as pottery, ceramics, and quilting.
Grinnell’s Veterans Memorial Commission endorsed the artist residency concept in its February meeting. Since that time, Lacina (below left) has conferred with John Bushong of Bushong Construction and displayed the proposed plans that resulted.
With these updated plans, the top floor of the building would consist of a community area at the north end—a room the approximate size of the community room at the Drake Library. The kitchen would remain; and that general area would also include a coat room; an ADA-compliant, single-occupancy bathroom; and an elevator.
The community area would open to a hallway extending south, flanked on either side by artist studios, three on the right as one moves south down the hall and two on the left. The hall would open to the building’s south end, to a lounge for artists and the public and to a new balcony overlooking Central Park.
Lacina was pleased to note that more room for the community area at the north end of the building would be available than he had first supposed and that the kitchen “might be licensable.”
The building’s basement would convert to artist rooms, a messy shop (saws and similar construction materials), a clean shop (high-tech equipment), a kitchen for the artists, and a group project area and classroom.
The proposal also calls for architectural enhancements to approve the appearance of the building and to establish a stronger memorial aesthetic, especially at the entrance.
To move forward with the concept, Lacina recommended a three-pronged approach: clarifying the design of the building and the programs it would offer, establishing a productive fundraising campaign, and communicating the artist residency plan effectively to the public.
“We all have to have a lot of passion to make this work,” he stressed.
Several questions and comments followed Lacina’s presentation, and three basic schools of thought emerged either directly or indirectly.
First, there are those who would like to see the building returned to what it once was. The idea that an artist residency program would limit community use is an objection. “[There is] not going to be much space left for the community to use,” commented one gentleman in the audience. Lacina, however, envisions different types of community use involving interaction between artists, many of whom will be veterans, and the public—pot luck suppers, for example, of the type held at Grin City Collective.
Second, there are those who simply want the building to come down. Many of these people feel that an artist residency program could be an asset to Grinnell, but they do not feel that the Veterans Memorial Building is the right spot. On the contrary, according to Lacina, the VMB with its Central Park location is likely the only structure in Grinnell that provides a strongly marketable site.
Finally, some people are wholly on board with the proposal, seeing it as the only idea proposed thus far that establishes a clear purpose for the building—a purpose with veterans and their service to the country at its heart—and that sets the building on a road to sustainability. The possibility that the building could serve veterans now more than it ever has is also part of this position.
As a result of Lacina’s recommendations, the commission voted unanimously to establish two committees, one dedicated to building and programming and the other to concentrate on fundraising and communications. The committees are open to everyone; precise membership will be determined.
As for cost, Lacina estimates a sum of $1.8 million, and he stressed the idea of return on investment as a key concept of the program. Taking the building down and establishing a green space would cost approximately $100,000, which would not include the cost of any type of veteran memorial that would go in the building’s place. Lease, earlier in the evening, cited the sum of $500,000, projecting that this amount, if raised by the November vote, would make the commission credible in the eyes of the community.
To meet the costs of the artist residency proposal, three types of funding are necessary at the outset: private donations secured through a fundraising campaign, affirmation of the levy from the November vote, and city support.
The levy is critical for maintenance costs and operational expenses.
Grants are a genuine possibility due to the uniqueness of the program and the worthiness of its purpose; however, there is not enough time for grant writing between now and November.
But what happens if the levy does not pass? Commission Chair Lease expressed the idea that a contingency plan needs to be in place. Such a plan would demonstrate that the commission is well organized, thorough, and committed. Plan B would involve a guarantee from the city that the northwest corner of Central Park would be dedicated as a veterans’ memorial. Absent a building, the space would include some sort of commemorative object(s) or area.
On the other hand, the idea that Plan B could detract from Plan A was suggested. In fact, some people not in favor of the building plan might vote against the levy precisely because they prefer a different type of memorial. Moreover, if a person is approached for a donation as part of the fundraising drive, what is the donation to be for—a building or a memorial yet to be determined? People generally do not want to spend money—even at the donation level—unless they know what that money is going toward.
Lease provided one answer to the questions by saying that the artist residency plan is strong enough that most of the discussion should involve it. Still, “We just don’t look responsible,” he stated, “if we haven’t covered all our bases.” He indicated that a Plan B concept will be brought forth as old business at the next commission meeting so that additional comments can be entertained. He also suggested that people interested in an alternative memorial might form a committee and explore options and that the commission would entertain ideas from such a group.
As the meeting neared conclusion, one attendee asked, “When do we decide that this [the Central Park Artist Residency] is the route we are going to go?” Tom Lacina responded by saying that more details about his proposal will be developed within the next 30 to 60 days and that by April or May “the clarity of what this plan is … will be there” and “it will be clear that this is the option … that would preserve the building.”
The meeting ended with some audience members examining drawings and with most of the attendees, no doubt, looking forward to additional details in the weeks ahead.