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Groups Clash Over Wall Visitors Center

With the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and pounding rain as backdrop, National Park Service officials and representatives of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund clashed over the desirability of constructing an underground visitor center adjacent to the memorial at a Resources subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

“It’s important that nothing detract from the powerful emotion that the memorial evokes,” said Dan Smith of the park service.

He said the park service supports the goals of the proposed visitor center but emphasized that “suitable” alternatives to the plan should also be explored, such as enhancing the existing informational kiosk or the construction of a center “near but not at the memorial.”

Jan Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, attributed the park service’s reservations to the objections of one man: John Parsons, the park service’s National Capital Region associate regional director of lands, resources and planning.

“For three years I have been fighting a person who is very powerful in this town and he has prevailed,” said Scruggs, referring to Parsons, who oversees additions to the Mall. “Mr. Parsons is wrong, and we will not allow him to thwart the will of Congress.”

Parsons later said his concerns were based on the proximity of the center to the wall, adding that the proposal warranted additional examination.

Legislation authorizing the design and construction of a visitor center “on or adjacent to the Memorial” has already been introduced in the House and Senate.

Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who introduced the House legislation, said, “The question is not whether or not to put it here, but what the impact will be on the rest of the Mall.”

For the moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund “has stepped back from” earlier design plans, which had included a movie theater and three-dimensional battle scene, said the fund’s communications director, Alan Greilsamer.

The fund anticipates the proposed 10,000-square-foot underground space would feature two general displays, one touching on the 65,000 items that have been left at the wall over the years, and the other including photos of the 58,000 men and women who died in the conflict. The $10 million center could potentially serve as a “safe haven” in the case of “biological, chemical or nuclear attack,” Scruggs said during the hearing.

Architect William Lecky said the controversial above-ground “glass pavilion” entrance to the center would likely be less than 2,000 square feet and would have a minimal impact on the overall aesthetics of the area.

Bills supporting a visitor center were introduced in the 106th and 107th Congresses but each time failed to secure approval due in part to amendments attached to the legislation that would have prohibited the construction of any additional memorials on the Mall. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) repeatedly took it off the Unanimous Consent Calendar, said Scruggs. Now with Gramm’s retirement, Scruggs said that Senators “from Bill Frist [R-Tenn.] to Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] and everyone in the middle” were supportive. “Our Senate problems are over,” he declared, adding that he anticipated the legislation would be passed later this summer, with a construction time frame of three and a half years.

The panel also heard declarations of support from such business and showbiz heavyweights as AOL’s Founding CEO James Kimsey and actor Robert Duvall, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Stanley Karnow.

Responding to those who have raised concerns about the precedent of additional construction on the Mall, Duvall, a U.S. Army veteran, asserted, “There is nothing to fear in the precedent of educating youth that will be set by this visitor center.”

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