Groups and city work together to find place for vets
'Almost speechless' is how Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis expressed his pride in the new master plan for Main City Park, which prescribes an $8.4 million redevelopment over the next 20 years.
'Speechless' may be too strong of a word to describe how local veterans groups reacted to the plan.
But they were stunned. And they weren't happy. That's because the new plan leaves them homeless.
Since 1952, The Gresham VFW and American Legion Posts have met in the building that houses Gresham Circuit Court on the edge of the park. Along with a new a skate park, a remodeled picnic shelter and restoration of Johnson Creek - among many other projects - the plan shows a Japanese garden in place of the court building.
A future East County Justice Center, which county officials hope to open in Rockwood by the end of next year, would make the circuit court obsolete. Same goes for the building. But the veterans groups say that a 57-year-old legal agreement obligates the city to provide them space 'in perpetuity.'
The city opened the building with great fanfare in 1952 as 'Veterans Memorial City Hall.' It was the second City Hall in Gresham's history, and cost about $100,000 to build. In the previous year, local veterans groups agreed to contribute about $40,000 of the building costs in exchange for meeting space.
By 1979, City Hall moved to 1333 N.W. Eastman, across the street from the current City Hall, and the city leased the building to Multnomah County and the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce. But the veterans' rights - albeit limited rights - to the premises were preserved in writing.
The 1979 agreement states that veterans groups could use part of the space for 'up to two meetings for each organization in each calendar month,' and the VFW was granted three meetings per month. Furthermore, the veterans could have additional meetings 'if such use does not conflict with the use of the Premises by City's tenants.'
Today, more than half the building is vacant - the chamber of commerce left five years ago - and Dave Brugato, the city's facilities manager, said the county pays an annual rent of approximately $37,500 for 6,500 square feet. There is still a sign in front that reads 'Veterans Memorial Hall.'
The veterans groups are now confined to a meeting space and a kitchen that is separated from the courtroom by a thin folding door. Meetings have to be scheduled around court proceedings and members pass through a metal detector when court is in session.
The arrangement muzzles the groups' community presence at a time they are trying to expand. What the groups really need, they say, is their own home. And with a new generation of veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 'the need is there,' said Eric Berggren, the VFW post commander.
'I get asked all the time by local veterans, 'Where are you guys, where's your building,' ' Berggren said, as he and other group members gathered in the space on Thursday, Jan. 24.
Berggren referenced two recent examples to illustrate his point. In one case, he helped a local Afghanistan veteran with a service-related ankle injury file a claim with the Veterans Administration. The man receives physical treatment at the VA hospital in downtown Portland. His service officer is also in Portland, which makes for a lot of traveling on an injured foot.
'Wouldn't it be nice to have someone out here in East County for veterans to be able to get help filing claims or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) counseling?' Berggren said.
In another case, the Gresham, Sandy and Molalla VFW posts joined forces to help a Gresham Iraq veteran with first and last month's rent for a new apartment. The man is married with six kids, and the Sandy VFW Ladies Auxiliary hosted the family for a turkey dinner.
Liz Marriott, president the Gresham VFW Ladies Auxiliary, said her group wants to take on similar projects. But a fully functioning community organization and a circuit court are not compatible roommates.
'Right now, the ladies auxiliary wants to do a pancake breakfast to raise money to help people, but the city won't allow us,' Marriott said. 'We can use it if we bring in only veterans, but if we open it up to the community, it's a security risk for the courthouse.'
The veterans groups have wondered about the fate of Veterans Memorial Hall for some time, especially with developments around the East County Justice Center. In May, Tyler Marriott, Liz Marriott's husband, wrote an e-mail to Bemis, expressing the group's concerns.
Bemis responded to Marriott with a personal letter in which he wrote that 'a long-term goal of finding a permanent home is very appropriate, and I am happy to lend my support for any grant applications you might pursue down the road.' Bemis requested that the group keep in touch with his office as 'changes are proposed for your current location.'
Nothing more happened until this month, when representatives of the veterans groups met with city staff members to discuss Gresham Heroes Memorial, a project that - when completed - will honor all service people who risk their lives, including military, police and fire personnel. The memorial is included as a project in Main City Park's master plan.
But, as they reviewed the plan, veterans noticed the absence of Veterans Memorial Hall.
That prompted some research. The veterans were aware that their predecessors made a financial investment, but the details were unclear.
'We've been digging into the archives and going deep within the organization's memory,' Berggren said, nodding toward Maynard Smith, a 75-year-old Korean War veteran.
'The bottom line is if we want a place to meet and they want to get rid of this one, the city should work with us to get a new place,' Smith said.
'We need to make sure the city doesn't forget,' said Liz Marriott, who has spearheaded the documentary research. 'Not only the commitment the veterans had to the country, but their commitment to the community. To give that much money (to the city) to help build something that was going to be around a long time.'
The oversight in the city's elaborate plan for Main City Park appears to have been a simple case of lost institutional memory. Although the veterans have always met in the building that was Gresham's City Hall, no one knew the extent to which they helped build it.
'Everything gets lost,' Liz Marriott said. 'It gets talked about in verbal history, then it kind of gets forgotten. The city fathers are no longer around.'
Berggren and Tyler Marriott testified at Tuesday's City Council meeting to help 'enlighten' them, Berggren said.
Now the city is joining with the veterans groups to recover the history in order to plan for the future.
'I don't believe any of the councilors were aware of this,' Councilor Shirley Craddick said Friday, Jan. 25. 'We need to learn all about it, and that is the first step.'
Berggren took pains to explain that the veterans are not looking to pick a fight with the city, and was appreciative that Craddick and Bemis personally approached him and Tyler Marriott after Tuesday's meeting. He also said that Councilor Paul Warr-King is arranging an informal meeting between councilors and veterans next week.
The veterans, clearly, are hoping the process results in a permanent home.
'If we had our own facility, we have kinds of visions and dreams of what we could do,' Berggren said.
But it is uncertain what that might mean. Berggren said the groups would be happy to take on the creaky old building, if the city decided to deed it over. That option is certainly cheaper than returning the original $40,000 investment, which approaches $325,000 in today's dollars. Beyond those two options, Berggren said he is open to anything.
'What other possibilities might the city have in mind? I don't know, let's discuss it,' Berggren said.
As they move forward, it's difficult not to revisit the original agreement. After all, $40,000 in 1951 could have easily procured a long-standing permanent home.
Berggren said he is sure that, at the time, the agreement was the right thing to do. But he wonders if 'today it would be a much more vigorous post' if the money was used differently.
Although the contribution might seem excessively generous by today's standards, Val Shaull, the VFW vice-commander and lifelong Gresham resident, said the gift was not out of the ordinary.
'Coming back and helping their community was just a part of what they did,' Shaull said.