Five months after triumphant opening, D-Day Memorial drowning in debt

Saturday, October 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEDFORD, Va. (AP) _ With a towering bronze sculpture of soldiers behind him and a line of veterans in front of him, President Bush dedicated the National D-Day Memorial to honor those who died on the beaches of Normandy to preserve freedom.

Now, just five months later, the foundation that runs the memorial is close to financial disaster. Its debt has ballooned to $7 million, most of the board has resigned, new construction has been curtailed, and at the request of the local prosecutor, the FBI and state police are investigating.

``It's been a real shot in the gut,'' said Bob Slaughter, a D-Day veteran who pushed for the memorial to be placed in this small farming community, which lost 23 residents in the invasion _ more per capita than anywhere else.

Like many board members, who were mostly World War II veterans, Slaughter said he learned the extent of the problems only recently.

``We didn't know that we owed anybody,'' said Lucille Boggess, who stepped down as the board's treasurer Oct. 11.

Boggess said the financial reports she read every meeting were provided by the board president. ``Many of us didn't know what those reports meant,'' she said.

Her first inkling of trouble came little more than a month before the dedication, when rumors circulated that a leading contractor was planning to pull out because it wasn't getting paid.

But the construction pressed on.

``We knew the president was coming, and we had to get that plaza finished,'' Boggess said.

By the time Bush arrived on the 57th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, invasion, the memorial was ready.

Bronze statues of soldiers _ some installed just days before _ clawed across a concrete beach. An architectural representation of a troop boat sat in a shallow pool. Air jets shot mini-geysers through the water to mimic enemy fire. Above it all towered an arch of polished granite, inscribed with the word ``Overlord,'' the Allied code name for the invasion.

Some D-Day veterans wept when they saw it for the first time.

Bill McIntosh, the D-Day foundation's interim president, said 230,000 people have visited so far, coming to remember the World War II invasion of Nazi-held Europe along the coast of France. The effort left 6,036 Americans killed or wounded on the first day alone.

How the memorial became so deeply in debt so quickly mystifies many involved with the foundation.

Construction began in 1997 with great optimism. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, a World War II veteran, donated about $1 million and led the national fund-raising before his death last year. To date, $20 million has been collected, including nearly $7.5 million from the state.

The problems likely started years ago, as community leaders and staff members pushed to build the memorial as fast as possible _ sometimes before the foundation had the money to pay for the work, said Richard Burrow, who resigned in June as the foundation's president because of health problems.

``World War II veterans were dying, and the staff felt strongly that we needed to get this done as soon as possible,'' Burrow said.

The memorial had accrued debts of ``several million dollars'' before, Burrow said, but donations always pulled the foundation out of trouble.

``But the big bucks we'd been receiving stopped coming in,'' Boggess said. ``Then the economy turned and the stock market went down. ... Then we had the (Sept. 11) tragedy.''

Randy Krantz, the commonwealth's attorney for Bedford County, would not comment on whether the board acted improperly. Krantz said he didn't know when the state police and the FBI would finish their investigation of the foundation's finances.

Whether any criminal behavior was involved, the memorial has become a working example of how not to supervise such a major project.

Kari F. Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, said she waited three years to collect $24 million from 4,000 donors and $5 million from Congress before breaking ground.

``We built a memorial that we knew we could afford,'' Watkins said. ``We don't have any debt, and we're not worried about it.''

McIntosh said $5 million of the debt comes from construction, landscaping and the dedication ceremony, which alone cost about $500,000. The foundation also must pay back $2 million in donations earmarked for other site projects but used for more immediate needs.

Orders for new statues have been put on hold, and a planned 49,000-sqare-foot education center will be scaled down, McIntosh said.

The foundation is also looking for a board of directors with a strong business sense who can coax big donations from companies, McIntosh said. It is expected to be installed next month.

``I don't know how much we'll be missed,'' Slaughter said. ``But I'm very proud ... bringing about something as magnificent as this. I just wish we could take away the last six months of 2001. Up until then, we were doing great.''


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