NORTHFIELD — Bob Webb fears that the city’s American Legion post is going to “die off” just as the city’s VFW post did before it.
“We might actually have to get rid of the building because we only have four or five guys come out anymore,” the 81-year-old U.S. Navy veteran said. “That’s not even enough for a quorum.”
But Webb stood alongside a handful of city officials and fellow veterans Friday afternoon as he reached down and planted a tiny American Flag in the soil of a former commercial orchard on Oak Avenue next to a cardboard sign that read “Freedom Isn’t Free.”
As temporary as Webb’s symbolic gesture seemed, it actually was done in advance of a much more grandiose and lasting tribute to Northfield’s veterans — a 3.1-acre veterans memorial park.
“Maybe with this here, we’ll be able to keep the veteran presence alive in Northfield,” he said. “And we only have today to honor vets, because tomorrow never comes.”
Mayor Vincent Mazzeo said the city is planning to build a park — complete with a walking path, benches and a monument in honor of veterans of all branches of the armed forces — on the site of the former orchard that the city purchased through the county’s open space program in 2009 for $750,000.
“We already preserved this as open space, but also being able to properly honor our veterans is a great thing for our city,” Mazzeo said. “It will be an ongoing history project that honors not only past wars, like World War II, but also the veterans still fighting today.”
One of the preliminary concepts for the memorial, called “12 Walls,” features 12 low-standing walls of various length — to symbolize, in chronological order, the 12 wars in which American troops have served — that will curve before disappearing into the earth. The names of local service members would be etched in the top of each wall. The plans leave enough space in case additional walls are ever needed.
All of the concepts — which Mazzeo said were designed free by the Denver-based landscape architecture firm Groundworks Design — include a gathering place with a dedication plaque, a map, flag and benches.
Councilman Steve Vain said city officials were kicking around ideas a few months ago on how to better honor veterans when Webb pitched the idea for the park.
“A lot of kids today really don’t realize just how much our veterans sacrificed for us,” Vain said.
The city does not have a timeframe for work to start, but officials are trying to collect enough donations and volunteer hours to complete the project at limited cost to taxpayers, Vain said.
The park is the latest in a series of steps the city has taken to honor both veterans and the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Earlier this year, the city began a program that honors at least one Northfield veteran every month and flies the American Flag in their name. The city also flew a pair of flags on Memorial Day, one with the name of all of the civilian victims of 9/11 and one with the names of each of the emergency responders killed. The flags will be framed and hung in City Hall.
“The men and women we choose always start off being hesitant of the attention. But after a couple minutes of talking about their experiences, you can really tell that they are so proud. This is our way of showing them that we are proud of them,” Councilwoman Cynthia Kern said.
Kern said the city will be honoring a soldier stationed in Afghanistan at its next meeting, even though the soldier will obviously not be present.
Bob Burness, an 85-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who served in both World War II and Korea, said he was pleased that the city was willing to preserve the property as a veterans park instead of allowing it be developed to generate tax revenue.
“It’s a fine idea, and I think this park will give people a place to relax and enjoy themselves,” Burness said.
Councilman Frank Perri Jr. said that since the city purchased the property through an open space grant, it must be maintained as a “passive park” — meaning undeveloped and no athletic fields.
Still, veterans called the size and scope of the park that the city is planning “heart-warming.”
“This is a unique piece of land for something like this because it is so large,” said Bill Coulter, 67, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “Other towns have veteran parks that are very nice, but are the size of a postage stamp. This is going to be something special.”
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