By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket staffAugust 11, 2008
Suddenly, the future residence of the Veterans Memorial Museum has become a topic of discussion among local veterans groups and the City of Huntsville.
Local veterans and veteran groups are angered by recent suggestions from Huntsville city officials that the museum should be moved to much smaller quarters in a nearby National Guard armory once its lease is up in two years.
Randy Withrow, the museum's director, doesn't like the idea of the move either. But he is hoping discussions will lead to a future move that will better position the museum for its own growth as a state, regional and national center for veteran and military history.
"I want to take this museum to the next level," he said. "I want to get out of that shell and into a new facility that will position the museum for growth. We're open to anything as long as it's in the best interest of veterans. We don't own this facility. But we are the owners of a responsibility to do what's best for veterans. Our mission is to educate and to favorably represent our veterans."
The museum, designated by the Alabama House of Representatives as the State of Alabama Veterans Memorial Museum, opened in 2001 and is adjacent to John Hunt Park off Airport Road. It displays more than 30 historical military vehicles from World War I to the present as well as tableaus, artifacts and other memorabilia dating back to the Revolutionary War. Displays include a "Merci" 40 et 8 boxcar from World War I, a Cobra attack helicopter, a collection of jeeps, Sherman tanks and Stuarts, a half-track and flags, maps, uniforms and other artifacts from every U.S. conflict.
Discussions concerning the museum's future began over a year ago when the museum asked the City of Huntsville for a long-term extension of its 10-year lease and for 3.5 acres adjacent to the existing location with the intent of building a new museum on the property. Withrow was notified in November 2007 that the city was negotiating with the State of Alabama and would have something that "would be great for us and that it would take time to work out."
In early July, city officials told Withrow the museum would have to move to make room for new recreational facilities in John Hunt Park, and that they hoped to have possession of the Raymond Jones Armory in October and were considering offering it to the museum. That plan was further discussed with Withrow at a meeting with city officials at the museum July 28.
"We're working with the city and the city has said if they do get the armory they plan on offering it to us," Withrow said.
But the armory, located at 3514 South Memorial Parkway and visible from the museum's front door, will not be big enough to hold the hundreds of museum artifacts, including tanks, jeeps, helicopters and other large-scale hardware, Withrow said. Currently, most of those artifacts are on display in close quarters in the museum's 12,000 square feet of open space and another 3,000 square feet of archives and office space. By comparison, the armory only has about 5,400 square feet of open space.
Yet Withrow also said the armory and the adjacent acreage could very well be part of a larger scale plan for a new museum facility that would incorporate larger display areas, conference rooms, classrooms, multi-media areas and other modern-day features.
"We had a very positive meeting with city officials," said Withrow, who would not identify those officials who he met with on July 28. "They now understand the magnitude of what is involved with moving the museum. The land adjacent to the armory would possibly be a good site for a new building ... I don't think there is any intent to displace us without a plan we can all agree on."
Although Huntsville Mayor Loretta Spencer wasn't involved in the July meetings, she is scheduled to meet with Withrow and other veterans concerning the future of the museum.
"The city has several positive options to present to the Veterans Memorial Museum," Spencer said in a statement to the Rocket.
"We have provided a facility for them and commend the volunteers who have invested a tremendous amount of time over the past eight years while occupying the building, acquiring and organizing exhibits. The museum showcases an important part of our country's history and honors the many men and women who have served in our armed forces. I look forward to the partnership with the museum being a longstanding one."
The armory building, built in 1954, could actually offer another element to the museum's collection.
"It could be restored as a memorial to the National Guard and be part of the museum complex. This could be an opportunity for us," Withrow said.
Besides size issues, other concerns about a new home - such as a building's current condition and accessibility - would have to be addressed.
"If we have to move, we want to move to a facility that will allow us to be a regional showcase for veterans' history," Withrow said. "Veterans made this country. They saved this country. And they are fighting for this country right now. They deserve only the best."
The museum needs additional time to "study, analyze, propose, design and build a first class building that would be a benefit to veterans in the state, region and nation," he said. "We're asking the city to support an extension of our lease to give us time. We're hoping the city will extend our lease five years beyond 2010."
Besides needing an extension to plan and construct a new facility, museum volunteers also need additional time to identify funding sources and raise the money needed for a new facility. Right now, those fund-raising efforts have to take a back seat to the work being done to raise funds for Honor Flight and the new veterans memorial in Veterans Park in downtown Huntsville.
"We are physically 100 percent behind Honor Flight and the veterans memorial," Withrow said. "Those two projects, we feel, have to come first. Then our time will come."
Withrow does indeed have a concept in mind for a new museum. He and other volunteers have visited other historical military museums in the nation, such as one at Camp Shelby, Miss.
A new museum would need to have plenty of meeting space. Over the years, the current museum has become a focal point for veterans and other community groups, although space is limited. The museum often hosts events of 50 or less people and must turn away requests from larger groups.
"We are a host for Honor Flight. We can hold the Honor Flight makeup orientations at the museum because they involve less than 50 people. But we can't host the initial Honor Flight orientations because they involve 150 or more people," Withrow said.
The museum is also the site for many local events, such as the annual Madison County Social Science Fair and the annual Army Emergency Relief car show coordinated by Vettes for Vets. In May, the museum was part of the Antique Truck Historical Association Convention that showcased 1,000 historical trucks on the old airport runway near the museum.
"We want to be a center for community activity," Withrow said. "We want veterans groups and other groups associated with the military and community groups to be able to use this facility."
But, more than anything, a new museum must have plenty of display and storage space for the "one-of-a-kind" artifacts now in the museum's possession.
"We need to preserve and protect these artifacts. For that reason, they need to be kept inside," he said.
It is difficult for Withrow to discuss the museum's possible move without getting emotional. He and a handful of volunteers have built the museum into what it is today - a place where visitors can view artifacts and information from every U.S. war, beginning with the Revolutionary War and continuing through today's Global War on Terrorism.
Because of the sheer number of artifacts and the large size of many of them, moving the museum will be a "monumental effort" and would involve dismantling exhibits and displays built by the hands of volunteers.
"We've done all this here with no funding. The painful part of this is seeing things we've done being taken apart and relocated," Withrow said. "But if things are going to be better, it will be worth it."
There's no doubt a new museum would give volunteers the opportunity to better showcase military history and local veteran artifacts. But it would also give them the opportunity to better highlight a piece of the nation's military history that's dear to many North Alabamians -- Redstone Arsenal. The current museum has a 9-by-12-foot room, known as the Redstone Room, jammed with documents and artifacts detailing the history of Redstone Arsenal.
"We have an obligation to be a representative of Redstone Arsenal," Withrow said. "Visitors can't go up to the gates at Redstone and ask to enter the Arsenal so they can learn about its history. But they can come here and learn all about Redstone Arsenal.
"In our Redstone Room, you can see everything from the ordnance plants once on the Arsenal through AMCOM and now we've got to add the Army Materiel Command. If we are going to include AMC, we are going to need a bigger space."
The discussions concerning the museum's move in 2010 are upsetting for many reasons. For eight years, volunteers have been using the current facility (at a cost of $1 a year) to bring military history alive and, for the most part, not focusing on the museum's fate beyond 2010. But Withrow said a move in 2010 would impact more than volunteers and artifacts. It could also impact plans for Huntsville to host the 2010 convention of the International Military Vehicle Preservation Association, which is interested in Huntsville specifically because of its veterans museum and the number of veterans in its 700-mile radius.
As of today, discussions with city officials concerning the museum's future location are ongoing. If the armory site doesn't work out, Withrow said he and other museum volunteers would be willing to look at other possible sites.
"We need to look at all the alternatives," he said. "But I'm very hopeful, very positive that we can find a site that works. There is a spirit of cooperation between us and the city. We want to work with the city and explore all alternatives. We want to be a team player, but we also want to look out for our veterans."