Come spring 2014, visitors to Sarasota National Cemetery will be able to walk under the shade at Patriot Plaza thanks to a Sarasota-based foundation.
"Patriot Plaza will stand on its own," said Steve Muro, under secretary for Memorial Affairs with the National Cemetery Administration. "It'll tell a story, and it will tell history of who we were, who we are and who we're going to be as families come here to reflect."
Sarasota-based Patterson Foundation worked with the National Cemetery Administration since 2010 developing a planned enhancement to the park and broke ground Monday morning on the $8.3 million project, which will be maintained in perpetuity by an endowment.
The 1.83-acre Patriot Plaza features:
- 20,800-square-foot glass covering designed to circulate wind
- Covered seating for up to 2,800 people
- Rofstrom that seats a 55-piece orchestra
- Commissioned art to be unveiled later
- 80-foot-tall stainless steel flagpole
The circle road around the plaza will also be named Patriot Circle.
"This plaza will be as stellar 100 years from now as it is on dedication day," said Patterson Foundation President and CEO Debra Jacobs.
The foundation is footing the bill for both meaning no taxpayer money will be involved in both the construction and maintenance of the plaza.
"It's a project a lot of people around the country would be open to without taxpayer dollars," Congressman Vern Buchanan (R—Longboat Key) said.
The foundation will also create a virtual tapestry to honor veterans called the Legacy of Valor leading up to the dedication.
The importance of honoring veterans in Florida cannot be underscored enough. More than 84,000 veterans live in Sarasota and Manatee counties alone, according to the Census. Throw in Charlotte and DeSoto counties for the regional draw of this cemetery, and that number rises to more than 113,000.
The cemetery has laid to rest 5,000 veterans so far, and could reach 100,000 in 20 years, Muro said.
Bradenton resident Jim Dryer spent 24 years in the Air Force, serving in the Vietnam era. Today he volunteers with the Patriot Guard providing support for indigent funerals. Dryer and his girlfriend even adopted two headstones to take care of and lay wreaths on. He hopes that more people will visit the cemetery with the improvements planned.
"The people that come here hopefully at least be here to see how we love and honor for the veterans," Dryer said.
Though some folks wish to visit Washington to see the memorials and monuments there honoring veterans, Dryer is OK here in Sarasota.
"I don't need to go anywhere else," he said. "It's my home now, and it'll be my home later on."
Muro told Patch that not only is this project designed to help bring the public here, drawing from Tampa and Naples, to honor veterans, but let veterans and their families know the cemetery exists and that veterans, as long as they were not dishonorably discharged, can be buried at Sarasota National Cemetery along with their family.
About 14 percent of veterans are buried in federal national cemeteries, while some opt for state veterans cemeteries and others choose private burials. Even in private burials, the Veterans Administration can provide a free headstone, Muro said.
One of the main goals of the project is to allow folks to honor veterans with relief from the Florida sun, Jacobs said.
"Today we're fortunate enough to sit under a tent, but picture 3,000 people gathering here on a major military patriotic holiday without shades and seats," Jacobs said. "What an opportunity we have to sit in comfort to reflect upon how we honor vet, inspire patriotism and embrace freedom."
Donating to the federal government isn't easy because of the regulations in place, and as the details were worked out, the foundation was able to lease the land for construction and will donate it back to the cemetery, Muro said.
"It's not easy when you're looking at a group that wants to donate and then you're looking at federal regs that make it tough for us to accept donations, but at the same time, they're there for a reason," Muro said.
The foundation will help the Veterans Affairs produce a booklet for a guide to donations and gifts to national cemeteries and be able to show community organizations some scaled down projects they could undertake, Muro told Patch.
The successes of the plaza and the donations could be replicated at other veterans cemeteries, Muro said, including new veterans cemeteries planned in Brevard and Leon counties and 16 other sites across the nation.
"Hopefully we'll put them in contact with the Patterson Foundation to see how they can help us," Muro said.
Patterson Foundation — From Lincoln to Longboat Key
The Patterson Foundation has long had an involvement with veterans, dating back to ties with President Abraham Lincoln. Jim Patterson was the great-grandson of Joseph Medill, who owned The Chicago Tribune in 1847, and helped create the Republican party and get Lincoln elected, Berteau said.
Medill's grandson, Col. Robert McCormick and Capt. Joseph Patterson later took helm at The Chicago Tribune, and Patterson founded The Daily News in New York City in 1919, according to the foundation's website.
Jim Patterson had graduated from West Point, served as a captain in the Army in World War II, returned to journalism while raising a family with his wife Dorothy Patterson. The two retired in Longboat Key in 1979. Jim Patterson died in 1992, leaving his fortune to Dorothy Patterson, who established the foundation. Dorothy passed away in 2007.
The foundation is located at 2 North Tamiami Trail, Suite 206