Military Museum Has Lift Off

October 3, 2003
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CASCADE — Ground was broken Monday on the long-awaited first phase of the Michigan Military Air, Land and Sea Museum at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

The Michigan Military Preservation Society (MMPS), an organization focused on retaining America's military history through preservation, restoration and display of military equipment and artifacts, has been pushing for two years to get the museum project off the ground.

The museum is expected to serve as an educational resource not only for the general public but also for high school juniors and seniors in Kent Intermediate School District's (KISD) Aviation Mechanics Technology program, a program run out of the district's Kent Career Technical Center.

Phase I will involve construction of KISD's 12,000-square-foot Aviation Mechanics Hangar and a 10,000-square-foot MMPS Restoration Hangar, which will be home to both permanent and traveling exhibits.

Cost of Phase I is estimated at $2 million, of which KISD is paying nearly $1.3 million, said project consultant John Helmholdt. KISD will lease the space from MMPS. The $1.3 million is basically the district's lease payment for the next 20 years.

"I think they saved about $500,000 by doing it that way rather than spreading it out over 20 years," Helmholdt said.

As of last week, the MMPS had raised about $650,000. The organization needed to raise at least $500,000 to meet its contractual obligation to the Kent County Aeronautics Board.

The goal is to have the KISD educational hanger open by fall 2004, hopefully in time for the start of the next school year, he said.

Phase II will add an estimated $12 million to the cost, for a total of $14 million. That sum includes a $2.4 million endowment to sustain museum operations long term.

MMPS negotiated with the aeronautics board for a 20-year lease on the site for $1 a year.

Phase II will involve construction of a 66,000-square-foot museum building, which is to include a 44,000-square foot display hangar, research library, 70-seat theater, museum gift shop, café and a conference room.

"We can't get into Phase II until we've raised an additional $3.5 million," Helmholdt said. "That's part of our contract with the aeronautics board. We have two years to achieve that goal. The aeronautics board has been very kind and understanding in light of some of the fundraising struggles. I would expect that between now and then we will hit our fundraising target."

Besides the museum site and the educational and restoration hangers site, the MMPS has an option on a third contiguous site for future expansion. Helmholdt said if the group doesn't hit its fundraising target by next year, it would lose the option on the third site.

The weak economic climate of the past couple years had set back museum fundraising efforts, delaying original plans for an earlier start on the project.

"Today marks a major milestone for MMPS," said Bill Harrison, executive director for the military air museum. "Like many other nonprofits and capital campaign projects in West Michigan, our organization has experienced the challenges and struggles associated with fundraising and organizational development. But we are here today to embark on the beginning of a dream that is ready to become a reality."

Bud Vierson, MMPS president, said his organization was only able to reach that point with the help of a lot of "generous" donors, including Dan Pfeiffer, Peter Cook, Peter Wege, the DeVos Foundation, Wolverine Building and Kent Companies.

Wege also pledged to procure and donate a C-47 aircraft that he flew in World War II, added MMPS board member Dan Pfeiffer.

Vierson said the mission of the museum is to retain history and honor the efforts of all branches of the U.S. Military in preserving America's freedoms.

"We can learn much from history," Vierson said. "We're here and able to record that history, and one of our special projects will be recording the individual histories of many of the veterans from our own community, or at least from Michigan."

Rick Briggs of the Kent Career Technical Center said the museum-KISD partnership is unique in that it creates a work force development component with the technical center.

The Aviation Mechanics program has more than doubled since its startup three years ago. It has nearly 90 students currently and a growing waiting list every year, he noted.

The two-year program includes study of the theory of flight, aerodynamics, aircraft design, maintenance and repair, as well as aircraft flight control, fuel, hydraulics and landing systems.

"When we move into the new facility we are going to consider adding avionics, as well," Briggs said. "The advancement of a career path in aviation mechanics provides a strong and much needed work force development component for educational opportunities and is consistent with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.'s strategic plan targeting high-tech training.

"Thanks to this unique partnership and the groundbreaking today, our students will study in a state-of-the-art educational facility unlike any other aviation maintenance program in the nation."

According to MMPS, recent trends indicate that military and aerospace museums are emerging as top draws among museums "based on growth in attendance levels, expanding operations and diversified exhibits."

MMPS also points out that the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau has already asked about the possibility of out-of-state organizations using the museum for reunions.

After the delays of the past couple years, some people doubted that the Michigan Military Air, Land and Sea Museum would ever get off the ground.

"It is going to happen," Pfeiffer said, "and it'll happen a lot sooner than a lot of the naysayers said it was going to happen."

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