ST. PETER — Bob Lambert was always ready for the unexpected when he flew U.S. Army helicopters in support of the South Korean Tiger Division in Vietnam.
But he has been blindsided by the intense and emotional debate that has surfaced in St. Peter as he and other veterans work to build a veterans memorial in Minnesota Square Park.
"We did not expect there'd be this kind of controversy over a site for a veterans memorial," he said
"We're finding there's all kinds of opinions about veterans and memorials. We were surprised by some of the negative opinions people have had, maybe more about the military than veterans themselves," Lambert said.
The heart of the debate gets down to whether a memorial should be placed in Minnesota Square Park, the highly visible park with the large pavilion, located next to Highway 169. But Lambert said the debate has also brought comments from some who think it would honor a military they often disagree with.
"I understand not everyone thinks like I do. It's been a learning process for all of us," Lambert said. "At this point we just want to know, do you have a site or not. If you don't want a veterans memorial at a public park, we'll go away."
Mayor Tim Strand said he, too, has been taken aback by the debate.
"The sad thing is, in the big picture it's not that big of a deal. But we've had more comments and discussion about this than anything in the past. It's emotional," Strand said.
"I don't think there's anyone on the council opposed to the memorial. Some are just opposed to where it goes," Strand said. He said he's not opposed to it going in Minnesota Square Park.
Strand and Lambert said that it appears there are three on the council in support of the memorial in Minnesota Square Park and three others who aren't certain or are opposed to it. Another council member, who has been in China all year and is due back next month, had previously voiced doubt about having it in the park.
Lambert said one of the undecided council members, Steve Grams, is weighing the issue carefully. "He's a good listener and thinker and I don't think he's made his mind up. He's listening to constituents," Lambert said.
Strand said it appears the issue will be discussed again at a workshop Aug. 4 and is likely to be on the agenda for a vote at the Aug. 11 meeting. The issue has been brought to the council at least three times in the past three years with no votes taken.
"I've been saying let's hold off on a vote because a 3-3 vote kills it. But we're getting a lot of feedback from people to make a decision."
Strand said some residents have asked why a veterans memorial wouldn't be placed in Veterans Park — the city's largest park, where the swimming pool is located. "That's a good question. But there's no room for it there. It's crowded now. If it goes there we'd have to take something out, a softball field, playground. We don't want to take something from someone else."
Strand said comments of Facebook pages discussing the issue are split about 50-50.
"Some say for what the veterans did, give them what they want. The other side says veterans always get what they want and this should be scrutinized more."
Beyond whether it should be in Minnesota Square Park, there is debate over where in the park. Some say if it is in the park it should be pushed back away from the prominent corner on Highway 169 where the veterans want it.
"And some say it should be a solemn place and semi traffic detracts form that," Strand said.
Lambert said a group has been working on the memorial idea for at least four years.
He has experience in placement and construction of veterans memorials. For 30 years he served as head of the parks and recreation department at Eden Prairie. He said a group approached him there to find a site for a similar memorial and he helped them.
"They raised $650,000 and built that one in less time than it's taken St. Peter just to find a site," he said.
"I understand why some people can object to this location or that location. But I think Minnesota Square is the obvious place, in my opinion. It's where people have been coming for generations for Memorial observances."