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Commissioners get rolling on new Vets Memorial

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A computer rendering shows plans for a new 40,000-square-foot Veterans Memorial, replacing the current venue north of Broad Street on the Scioto River. The proposed new facility would include an outdoor ampitheater and interactive displays. To the west of the new memorial and south of Broad Street are buildings officials hope become apartments and retail venues as the area grows.
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Franklin County commissioners moved on a plan last week that would not only raze and then rebuild Veterans Memorial in Columbus, but also begin what they said would be a revitalization of the Scioto Peninsula.

The commissioners Dec. 3 unanimously voted to approve a lease with Columbus Downtown Development Corp., clearing the way to raze the 60-year-old building in 2014 and replace it with a new Ohio Veterans Memorial and Museum, which is expected to open in fall 2016.

The proposed new memorial building will not have a large indoor hall for assemblies, conventions, celebrations or community events.

The decision leaves the Shamrock Club of Columbus and other groups that rent Veterans Memorial feeling spurned.

The large auditorium and show halls have been the site for numerous community events, such as concerts, high school and college graduations, trade shows and some events from the annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.

Representatives from many of those groups said Veterans Memorial was a low-cost alternative in a downtown with few large and inexpensive convention facilities.

The Shamrock Club draws upward of 5,000 people to its annual St. Patrick's Day celebration, said Mike Murphy, president of the club.

"We have to try another venue that will seat that many people," Murphy said.

"It's certainly going to affect us on the economic side. It's our largest fundraiser every year."

The Shamrock Club is one of only a few groups allowed to bring food to its event, an arrangement another event space likely won't honor, Murphy said.

He said the club will hold its 2014 St. Patrick's Day festivities in Veterans Memorial.

Although many refer to it as the Columbus St. Patrick's Day celebration, the Shamrock Club organizes and pays for the annual parade downtown and the celebration in Veterans Memorial.

Murphy said he's grateful Experience Columbus is working with the Shamrock Club, along with other groups, to try to find a suitable location.

"They're being helpful in trying to help us find an alternative," Murphy said.

"They've at least addressed that concern."

Board of Commissioners Chairman John O'Grady defended the board's action, saying the current Veterans Memorial facility is simply outdated.

"Yes, I know this is an inexpensive, viable option, but just because it's an inexpensive, viable option doesn't mean it's the only option," he said.

O'Grady said commissioners want the new memorial to be a statewide draw dedicated to educating guests about the sacrifices and achievements of veterans.

He said the memorial's business plan has been "upside down for awhile," rarely breaking even and often needing a subsidy.

Commissioners have been faced with $10 million in capital improvements, along with regular maintenance, O'Grady said.

The layout also isn't conducive to the memorial's mission, he said.

Many of the rooms and hallways dedicated to veterans are rarely used or seen by most visitors, he said.

"People don't come down to Veterans Memorial because they want to honor veterans," O'Grady said.

"They're going because of events. As a memorial it's sorely lacking."

What isn't clear is whether the new memorial will make money because it's not designed as a convention facility.

"So we'll have to figure out how to address that," he said. "We haven't decided which direction to go in."

Commissioners will pony up $5.6 million for the project -- $3 million toward construction and $2.6 million for excavation of the site.

Leslie Wexner, founder of Limited Brands, and his wife, Abigail, have committed to spending $25 million for the cost of the new memorial.

The proposed 40,000-square-foot memorial would feature a contemporary design with glass panels, an expansive promenade, outdoor amphitheater, meeting space for veterans, classrooms for children and interactive exhibits.

Local officials have been trying to transform the 56-acre peninsula into a cultural, residential and retail destination.

"There's a lot going on down there," O'Grady said. "This is what started that whole conversation."

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