BELDING — World War II veteran John Geisen has one wish: To see a new Freedom Wall erected in Belding displaying the names of all Belding residents who fought in the war while they are still alive to see it.
Members of a subcommittee working to construct the wall discussed basic logistics of the project, along with possible locations for the wall and a new Veterans Park. Halfway through the nearly two-hour meeting, Geisen had heard enough.
“How many people sitting here today had their name on that wall?” Geisen asked everyone at the meeting, to no response. “I came here to talk about (the wall), but we’ve missed the boat. We have come to build a wall and honor those guys who are now gone and are going to be gone.”
With watery eyes, Geisen recalled a story about a friend he lost in the war and ended his statement saying,“that’s why we’ve got to build this wall.”
Everyone agreed that building a Freedom Wall and Veterans Park is of utmost importance to Belding and will happen. However, the decision on a location to build the wall and park is still being discussed.
“Things often start out small and gain momentum as you go along and that’s what has happened here,” City Manager Randy DeBruine said. “It started with the Freedom Wall, a 25-by-14-foot structure placed at the east end of the depot. From there, it was put on paper and gained momentum to the point where we are now looking at adding more monuments and looking for a more central location. Obviously, the east end of the depot would not work, as there is very little room there for more than one (monument).”
Locations and plans
DeBruine said he surveyed nine locations for a possible Veterans Park with other city officials, narrowing the search down to five locations. After Monday’s meeting, three of those locations remain options.
The remaining locations include a plot of land just west of the Pere Marquette Depot on Gibson Street, the empty Breimayer lot on the corner of Congress and Bridge streets across from City Hall and a private lot that could not be discussed publicly.
Throughout the meeting, everyone listed positives and negatives of every location, narrowing the process down to three locations that were in the best interest of the park.
Locations at East Riverside Park and Central Riverside Park were ruled out. The primary issues with each park were that East Riverside Park was deemed too far away from public view and Central Riverside Park has issues with flooding.
Denny Craycraft, the Belding veteran spearheading the freedom wall project, said it was difficult to discuss issues such as costs and number of memorials until a location is chosen.
“Before we can get down to the nitty-gritty of designing the park, we have to have a location selected,” he said. “We could accomplish our goal in that area and make it a very pleasant area for this community.”
Craycraft said plans currently call for a first stage in which the wall, featuring the 721 names from the original Freedom wall that was decommissioned in 1948, will be built first.
After the wall is completed, further fundraising will be done to build additional monuments to honor veterans from other wars.
“This is why I think it’s so important to start moving forward on this wall,” he said. “It’s going to be done in stages. Once people see it being built and know that it’s not costing the city any money, people and businesses will be more inclined to donate.”
Pere Marquette Depot
Local architect Duane Shore said the plot of land west of the Depot is an ideal spot for high traffic of visitors because of the possible inclusion of the Fred Meijer River Valley Trail, which will pass by the area as it meanders from Greenville to Lowell.
“The idea was with that location, when people come down the rail trail, people could wander into the (park),” Shore said. “There’s room to expand this when the rail trail is developed and it could all be incorporated into one.”
Drawbacks against the Depot location include its proximity to Central Riverside Park and the disturbance of young children playing nearby.
“I don’t like the lack of visibility there,” subcommittee member Patti Batzer said. “I think the (veterans) park needs to be honored on its own, away from other parks. I think this park should be an entity of itself. (People) shouldn’t be going there because there’s a soccer game going on. They should be going there to see what these people did, honor them, respect them and remember them. This is a different type of a park.”
Sharon Carlson, vice chairwoman of the Recreation Advisory Board and member of the Downtown Development Authority, sees the close proximity to another park as a positive.
“When you’re looking at the fact that you want to the memorial to be in a high traffic area, but you see the proximity to an existing park as a negative, I see the opposite,” she said. “I think being in an existing park brings in people of all ages.”
DeBruine cited possible commercial use for the Breimayer lot in the future as a reason for choosing a different site.
“That site could be used as a park, there is nothing wrong with that,” DeBruine said. “A park in that location is acceptable. The question is, what does the Planning Commission want to see on that location? Do they want to see a park there or a higher intensity use such as some sort of development?”
He said placing a park there permanently eliminates the chances of it being developed.
“You’re not going to find a developer this year, but 5, 15 or 25 years from now what do you want to see on that site? You’re talking about decisions that last a lifetime or more,” DeBruine said. “That’s how the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is trying to look at it, because we do have a lot of money tied up into that property.”
City Council Member Mike Scheid said any potential commercial use of that property is far fetched.
“If you think someone’s going to come develop this lot, it’s a pipe dream,” he said. “Our business district is out on M-44, just like Greenville’s has moved out to M-57 and Ionia’s is moving south on M-66. The business districts are not downtown. It hasn’t worked. I don’t see a problem with using the Breimayer lot. I don’t see a problem with any of the three locations. That’s just a personal opinion. I want that wall up and taken care of.”
Craycraft said with expectations to build the wall by Memorial Day of this year, a “Plan B” may be put into effect, where the wall will be constructed on the original proposed lot east of the Pere Marquette Depot, with a Veterans Park eventually following at a later date.
“We’re building that wall, first and foremost,” he said. “If that’s the fastest route, then we’ll probably take it.”
Subcommittee members didn’t take any formal action on Monday. DeBruine said the topic will be discussed at future meetings, including the next City Council meeting Feb. 7.