A handful of veterans and a state legislator who has championed veterans issues in the Legislature urged the Jefferson City Council on Monday to offer the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) 2.5 acres of a city park so a national veterans cemetery could be expanded.
No decision was made Monday, but the council is expected to act at its Oct. 4 meeting.
In February 2020, the Parks and Recreation Commission approved transferring East Miller Park, 998 E. Miller St., to the Veterans Administration for an expansion of the Jefferson City National Cemetery.
The National Cemetery, which is across the street from the park, ran out of space for new burials in 1961 and cremation sites in 1996. At the moment, it is only open to subsequent burials for veterans or eligible family members at existing gravesites.
State Rep. Dave Griffith, of Jefferson City, approached the city alongside area veteran groups about the potential to use the park area to expand the cemetery.
The plan would have the parks department develop a new park on East Elm Street, which is on the other side of U.S. 50 from the East Miller Park, along with upgrades to Park Place Neighborhood Park, which is a few blocks away.
"We feel very confident that the plan staff put together will execute our desire to provide the very best possible parks we can provide within the confines of our budget," said Chris Leuckel, president of the Parks Commission.
The bill before the council, if passed, would show support and add a timeline to the offer. If the VA doesn't accept the land for the national cemetery within two years, the offer would be rescinded.
Griffith said he wanted to have City Council support before taking the idea to VA officials. If the VA doesn't accept the property, then it remains with the city.
"I made a promise to these veterans here in our community, and really, through all of Central Missouri," Griffith said. "We have about 22,000 veterans in and around Central Missouri, and I made a commitment to them that I would see this to the end. I want to be able to sit across from this person (with the VA) and have him look me in the eye and tell me, 'No, we're not going to do it.'"
The project has support from the local and national American Legion, Roscoe Enloe Post No. 5, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Jefferson City Veterans Council.
Charles Goodin, with the American Legion, said Monday support for the project passed the national American Legion Convention at the beginning of the month.
"It has all nearly 2 million members of the American Legion, and nearly 1 million auxiliary and a half-million sons are behind that project," he said. "So the other thing that means, the American Legion — as most of the other veteran service organizations — has a Washington office. Those people are paid to go to the Hill and push our issues. Once a resolution is passed by the American Legion, it'll never go out until it's completed, retired or replaced. So, our people in Washington will be working on that."
When the topic first came up two years ago, there was some backlash from the community around East Miller Park. Residents voiced concern over losing a place to send their children and part of the area's history.
Nobody at Monday night's meeting spoke against the project.
Douglas Wright, founder of Building Community Bridges, said the community is looking to change for the better.
"I looked at the plan," Wright said. "I looked at the plan for the cemetery. I look at what they want to do on the other side of the highway," he said. "To me, I'm about building bridges and changing lives I'm here to have it not as a race issue because there's Black and white people in our communities, living in both of these areas, and there's also Black and white people in the military."
Gary Kempker, former Jefferson City police chief, said he supports the move as a veteran.
"I served on a lot of things," he said. "I will never be a former United States veteran. When my day comes in 50 or 60 years, I'd like my grandchildren and my kids to come see me and not have to drive 70, 80, 90, 120 miles to do that."
The cemetery is around 2.4 acres, Griffith said, and holds 1,792 internments.
The parks land is around 2.5 acres; the proposed plan would be to build a ceremonial plaza and multipurpose building on one end of the area. Project schematics show approximately 480 graves.
Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis is the only national cemetery in Missouri with open burial spaces.
Leuckel said the land offer does not include the park's parking lot, which would remain city property, as other city agencies use it as well.
In other business Monday, the council:
- Approved a bid from Central Missouri Plumbing LLC for plumbing service for city facilities for one year to not exceed $50,000.
- Accepted a $30,000 historic preservation fund grant for historic context.
- Approved the installation of a community pantry box next to the sidewalk in the 200 block of Adams Street.
- Accepted a $108,652 Federal Transit Administration grant to purchase two replacement buses for Handiwheels.
- Vacated the right-of-way at the 400 block of Union and Case streets and the alleys to the south and north as well as the Oberman Place right-of-way. The request comes from the Jefferson City School District and will allow those areas to be used for the construction of new soccer and baseball fields.
- Authorized the construction of a single-family home at 805 Monroe St. by the Central Missouri Community Action Agency. The agency would purchase the property from the city for $500.