By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffAugust 25, 2008
It's now time for Randy Withrow and his committee of volunteers to dream big.
As the volunteer director of the Veterans Memorial Museum, Withrow has been in the midst of a recent controversy involving the future of the museum. But that controversy was laid to rest Aug. 14 when the Huntsville City Council approved a five-year extension on the museum's lease beyond its expiration in 2010 and reiterated its recommendation to move the museum in John Hunt Park to an adjacent site that includes the Raymond Jones National Guard Armory.
"We're pleased," Withrow said when contacted by phone in Portland, Ore., where he had traveled to present Huntsville as a future site of the annual convention of the International Military Vehicle Preservation Association. Huntsville has won the convention for 2012, in part, because the museum is designated as Alabama's official veterans museum.
"We were working with the city. We're pleased with what they've done. This is the first leg of getting a new museum," Withrow continued about the council's actions.
"We needed their support and this additional time to work on a master plan for up to 50,000 square feet, to assess the building that is already there, to lay out plans for our building and to raise capital."
Withrow estimates that a new museum will cost upward of $5 million. He already has sketched out his idea of the museum, complete with larger display areas, conference rooms, classrooms, multi-media areas, storage space and other modern-day features. A committee of volunteers led by veteran Bob McCoy has formed to guide the development of the new museum and a local architectural firm is working on building plans. Withrow is planning another trip to Camp Shelby, Miss., to look closely at its museum design, with plans to incorporate some of its design elements in the Huntsville museum.
Although he knew local veterans and veteran groups support the museum, Withrow was still overwhelmed by the level of support the museum received when it first learned it would have to move. At the time, city officials recommended the museum be moved to the National Guard Armory, which will be unoccupied in October, to make room in John Hunt Park for additional recreation uses, such as more soccer fields and a new indoor swimming complex.
But the armory is only 5,400 square feet in size compared to the cramped 12,000 square feet of open space and another 3,000 square feet of archives and storage space at the museum's current location. In addition, the new site offered only 3.5 additional acres, which wouldn't allow for a new building. The recommendation created a backlash of criticism from veterans who didn't want the museum to be forced to move within the year into a facility that offered less than what they now had.
"City officials didn't understand what we had here. We invited them in and their response was 'Wow,'" Withrow said. "They know now there is nothing like this museum.
"Even the best veterans museums (such as those located at Fort Knox, Ky., and Camp Shelby and the D-Day Museum in New Orleans) can't match what we are doing here because they only involve one aspect or one era of military history. We cover the entire military history. We're focused on all our history and all our veterans."
Besides getting an extension of the 10-year, $1-a-year lease through 2015, other issues of concern to museum officials have also been worked out with the City of Huntsville. The city was able to increase the acreage of the new site from 3.5 acres to 9 acres, giving the museum plenty of space to build a new building and also the option to keep the current armory building with the intent of restoring it as a National Guard memorial. And the city has agreed to move the museum's large collection of artifacts, displays and historical military vehicles.
"One of our concerns is that a lot of this heavy machinery will need to be moved using heavy equipment," Withrow said, adding that a museum run on a shoestring budget with a dozen volunteers doesn't have the resources to pay for such a monumental move.
Another issue was the entrance into the new 9-acre site, which can be seen from the museum's current location and which is adjacent to John Hunt Park.
"Our entrance will be through the park. That's what we wanted," Withrow said. "The master plan calls for a loop road through the park and the museum will be off the north end of that loop. The plan is for the main part of our new building to face south so that when you enter the park from Airport Road the museum will be visible."
The new museum will usher in a new era for the veterans museum.
"We will really be stepping up to another level," Withrow said. "We've been wanting to go to another level and I know we can do it.
"The first thing we wanted to do with this museum was to get it established. We feel we've done that since we've been here. With our lease renewal, we feel we've secured our future. And with the land and armory, we now have something to build on to."
Withrow, who relies on about a dozen volunteers and local military groups to keep the museum operating, said the museum was established nearly 10 years ago for the benefit of veterans, local school children and the community.
"Our reward, our return, is the education of children about what veterans are all about and what they've done to secure their future," he said. "If we can get a few children to understand the sacrifices, then that's our pay. That's worth more than money."