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New nonprofit to own, maintain Erie veterans memorial park

Mary Jane Koenig, 71; Barbara Hauck, 71; and Tom Spagel, 52, are seen at the Erie County Veterans Memorial Park.

CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE/ERIE TIMES-NEWS/TNS

By ED PALATTELLA | Erie Times-News | Published: June 8, 2019

ERIE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Erie School Director Tom Spagel and fellow advocates for military veterans have accomplished a big part of the mission that Spagel launched just about six months ago.

With Spagel in the lead, the group has formed a nonprofit to take over ownership and maintenance of the triangle-shaped park that is home to five war memorials and is across the street from Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium at 26th and State streets.

The new organization called Erie County Veterans Memorial Park, is on schedule to get the deed to the 1.96-acre parcel from the Erie School District within the next several months.

With the property transfer all but assured, Spagel said the organization is pursuing its goal to raise as much as $350,000 to pay for the perpetual maintenance of the park.

The aim, said Spagel, 52, a retired major in the U.S. Army Reserve and the group's president, is "to make this park a beautiful place, even more beautiful than what it currently is, so it will be able to properly represent and honor all the service of the veterans that have served for us."

The Erie School District, which encouraged the formation of the nonprofit, plans to donate the property. It stretches from State Street west to a section of district-owned dilapidated tennis courts along Glenwood Park Avenue.

The group by the end of this year plans to remove the tennis courts, which the group wants to turn into into a parking lot, Spagel said, and he said the group within a year wants to come up with funding and a long-term plan for the entire property.

The school district received a survey of the land on Thursday and is finalizing the legal documents to transfer the parcel to the new nonprofit by the end of the summer, said the district's solicitor, Tim Wachter. The Erie County Veterans Memorial Park in mid-May completed all the state and federal filings needed for its creation, clearing the way for the transfer.

"We are happy with what they are doing for the veterans, to honor the veterans at the park," said Neal Brokman, the Erie School District's executive director of operations. "We are pleased so far."

Perpetual maintenance

The school district has been leasing the land, known as "the triangle," at no cost to the various veterans' groups that erected the war memorials, which honor those in Erie County who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and those awarded the Purple Heart.

Each veterans' group has been maintaining its monuments, with the school district caring for the common area. But as it has continued to find ways to save money during its financial recovery, the school district has been shedding property that is not related to education and students. The district will continue to own and operate Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Spagel, a school director since 2013, volunteered to explore the formation of a nonprofit that would get possession of the triangle from the school district. When he detailed his plans in January, he predicted that creating the nonprofit could take more than a year as he talked to all the veterans groups about working together on the project.

The process turned out to take much less time. Spagel credited the veterans' groups for their cooperation.

"They all have a common interest in honoring the soldiers and sailors and airmen that they all represent," Spagel said.

Under the arrangement with the Erie County Veterans Memorial Park, the various veterans' groups will continue to maintain their respective monuments, Spagel said. But he said the new nonprofit will be responsible for the general upkeep of the property, including the common area.

"Their biggest concern was the independence of their own memorials," Spagel said of the veterans' groups. "We want to properly manage the common area."

'An important space'

The nonprofit's vice president is Ken Kensill, 75, president of the Erie County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., which raised money to build and maintain the Vietnam War memorial in the park. Kensill, a U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran, was unavailable for comment for this story, but he was among the first to support Spagel's idea for the creation of a nonprofit.

The nonprofit's secretary is Barbara Hauck, 71, whose late husband was a veteran of the Vietnam War and whose late father was a prisoner of war in Germany in World War II. Its treasurer is Mary Jane Koenig, 71, a retired Erie School District teacher who chairs the Erie County World War I Centennial Committee, which had the World War I memorial installed in the park this past Memorial Day weekend.

"It is so important to honor and remember our U.S. military and this park gives us an opportunity to reflect on all those from Erie County who served," Koenig said. "Even though all those in service during World War I are gone, the number of people at the dedication ceremony on May 25 demonstrated how important it is to reflect on those who made sacrifices and met challenges to serve our country."

The group wants to ensure that care for the memorial park continues well into the future, even as veterans age, Hauck and the others said. Hauck also said the group wants to ensure that the veterans' legacy, as memorialized in the park's monuments, endures.

The freedoms that Americans enjoy are "because of the veterans' sacrifices in all the wars," Hauck said. "This is an important space."

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