After several months of consideration and debate, and years of work on the part of Jefferson City's veterans, a possible expansion to the veteran's cemetery in Jefferson City has passed its first hurdle. The veterans and Parks staff feel it's a positive move for the whole community.
On Tuesday, the Jefferson City Parks and Recreation Commission approved the transfer of the land making up East Miller Park to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which regulates national veteran's cemeteries like Jefferson City National Cemetery, if they want it for expansion of the cemetery.
It's a battle won for Jefferson City's veterans.
Daniel Levasseur is a 25-year veteran and director of the local chapter of the American Legion Riders.
"Expanding that national cemetery, it will highlight Jefferson City, not only within the state but within the nation, and allow families to visit their loved ones that are nearby," Levasseur said.
Despite the approval of the commission, the actions Tuesday do not guarantee anything, said Chris Leuckel, president of the commission.
"This was the one to get the ball rolling, to at least say, 'The City of Jefferson and the Parks Department are willing to work with this,'" Leuckel said.
The commission will send a memorandum of understanding to the VA, essentially saying they are willing to give them the land should they approve an expansion into that space. The VA will have to decide next.
The Jefferson City National Cemetery ran out of space for first interment grave sites — sites in which multiple family members can be interred. The first interment can be a veteran or their immediate family member, with family members or the veteran eligible for burial at the same site later.
In 1996, the cemetery ran out of sites for cremated remains, as well.
The cemetery now has 1,792 white granite headstones and is closed to new interments. The only interments accepted now are subsequent ones for veterans or eligible family members at existing grave sites.
The closest national cemetery open for burials is Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Springfield National Cemetery is only open to cremations.
The nearest veterans cemeteries are state, not national, the closest being in Fort Leonard Wood, almost 70 miles away. That's too long of a trip for veteran's families to make, said Tom Rackers, a lobbyist and former Jefferson City mayor.
Rackers has worked with a group of local veterans and organizations like the Missouri Veterans Commission to find a solution to the lack of burial space for more than three years.
They first tried to find space for a brand new national cemetery in the area but ran into obstacles.
"We walked every piece of property in Cole County and tried everything," Rackers said. "Out of the flood plane, flat, there's just hardly anything that will work. We concluded that the best thing to do was try to expand the existing cemetery."
That space is the current home of East Miller Park — about 2.5 acres. The proposal, at the time, was to move the park space into the empty green space across the highway along East Elm Street.
When public discussion started in October about the possible move, members of the community living around the park protested. Hans Overton, a long-time resident, was the main voice of protest against the loss or movement of the "Black Top."
Overton may have been the most vocal, but he wasn't the only resident against the move. An online petition he created gathered 642 signatures as of Tuesday evening. He also protested outside of City Hall, carrying a sign reading "Don't move our park."
"We don't want them to remove the park out of the community," Overton previously told the News Tribune. "The community has been devastated enough in that area. It's disappearing slowly, and we want to keep the area there and keep the park there."
An attempt by the News Tribune to reach Overton on Tuesday was unsuccessful.
Despite concerns from some of the community, Leuckel said they feel they are doing what is best for not only the veterans but the park users in the area.
The plan is, if the VA wants the land, JC Parks will develop about .75 acres of land between East Elm Street and U.S. 54/63 into a new park, as well as upgrade the existing Park Place Neighborhood Park at the corner of Park Avenue and Center Street, just a few blocks away.
"It's a win-win for our community. The two parks are going to be an addition — East Elm isn't a park now, it's vacant land, so we're going to increase that, and there are going to be kids playing in that park real soon," Leuckel said. "Park Avenue Park is going to be improved."
East Miller Park would've been upgraded within the next few years as part of an ongoing master plan, with estimated costs for the full upgrade around $3 million. Park Place Neighborhood Park was a low priority park, but to make up for a little bit of lost space, it will be added to the new plan.
The space at East Elm would include a splash park, a half-court basketball court, playground and other amenities, and Park Place would receive some upgrades including barbecue grills and a playground.
East Miller Park, after the parking lot space is subtracted, is about 2 acres. The two new spaces are about 0.75 acres each, meaning the new space is a little smaller. However, Leuckel said there is also the potential to add two full-size basketball courts somewhere in the area in the future, although it is still being considered.
Overall, Leuckel said it's an improvement to the park footprint in the area. As part of their examination of the issue, staff used ParkServe Interactive mapping made by The Trust for Public Land to calculate the service areas of all three parks.
A service area for a park is the population living within a half mile, or 10-minute walk, of the park. For East Miller, the service area includes a population of 1,840. The proposed new location on East Elm Street would have a service area of 1,540, and Park Place would have a service area of 1,319.
Levasseur said it was important the two sides of the issue came together to work out a solution, and he feels the new parks will be a benefit, echoing Leuckel and calling it a "win-win."
"One community gets two brand-new parks — updated and modernized to serve a better component of their community," Levasseur said. "And our community gets an expansion, hopefully, if everything goes through the state and the government, that will almost double the size of our current cemetery."
Rackers agreed, and said they feel positive the plan will work out, and the city will be able to provide a burial place for those who served their country.
"We just owe it to those folks," Rackers said. "They're the folks that have protected this country and made it a better place to live, work and raise our families. I'm very appreciative."
With the Parks Commission's decision, the process now moves to the national VA, which would need to approve the acquisition of the land and expansion of the cemetery, as well as secure funding for the expansion. A timeline isn't certain at this point.
"It's still a process away," Leuckel said. "We'll see how that pans out."