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Veteran cemetery, paid downtown Augusta parking move forward

Augusta Chronicle - 9/11/2019

Sep. 11--Home to more than 68,000 veterans regionally and 21,859 in Augusta alone, Richmond County could also become the eternal resting place for many of them.

With urging from several area veterans including former Mayor Bob Young, an Augusta Commission committee Tuesday approved drafting a resolution asking the state of Georgia to locate a third state veterans cemetery here.

Another committee gave the go-ahead for Augusta Engineering and Chicago-based SP+ to develop a paid parking management proposal for downtown Augusta.

Two decades ago, Young helped push a nearly-successful effort to open a veterans cemetery at Fort Gordon, he said. The plan was to locate the cemetery on 60 acres of a post golf course, but 9/11 made the plan unworkable.

"In the aftermath of 9/11, the military changed the security protocols at the bases," he said. "If you were going to have something accessible to the public, it has to be accessible off base."

The cemetery would be state-ran resembling Arlington National Cemetery that is open to any U.S. veterans, their spouses and dependent children, Young said.

Augusta is close to the top in eligibility under Veterans Administration criteria for a veteran cemetery, he said. If it approves, the state would apply for a VA grant to open and develop the cemetery, he said.

The state must own the property, ideally 60 acres to operate for many years, Young said. Georgia owns hundreds of acres at the former Gracewood state hospital that could be an option, he said.

The state would then cover the cemetery's annual operating budget, he said. The two existing state veteran cemeteries -- in Milledgeville and Glennville -- cost about $500,000 a year to operate, he said.

"You have nothing invested in it other than the initial effort up front," Young said.

The effort will require broader support -- from area governments, the legislative delegation, the governor's office and eventually Congress -- to succeed, he said.

"There are a lot of moving parts" and needs "a champion who takes ownership" of the project, which will take several years, he said.

Already "actively and routinely" maintaining those relationships is Veterans United, an area veterans support network, said Deputy Director Don Clark.

Clark said his count of regional and Augusta veterans did not include Fort Gordon, and coupled with ongoing "tremendous" military growth points to the expansion of services for veterans, including a cemetery.

Currently the closest cemeteries for veterans are Milledgeville and Fort Jackson National Cemetery in Columbia, Clark said.

Bridging that distance are the Patriot Guard Riders, several of whom appeared in support of the effort Tuesday. The riders travel at a moment's notice "to celebrate and also escort the remains of veterans" to the cemeteries when called on, he said.

An Augusta veterans cemetery "would save a lot for us as volunteers, but it also would save a lot for families who have to make a trip to Milledgeville, Glennville, Columbia to see their loved ones," said Leon McLamb, assistant state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders' southeast region.

Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who put the item on Tuesday's agenda, said it was "fitting and proper" for Augusta to provide veterans with a nearby cemetery.

"A lot of times when someone in the military passes on and they want to be buried in a military cemetery, the families have to travel 50 or 100 miles for that to happen," he said.

In other business, commissioners had a number of questions about the parking plan but a committee eventually moved it forward.

Since May, the city has identified the most qualified applicant, SP+, and now wants commission authorization to proceed with having SP+ develop a proposal, said city Traffic Engineer John Ussery.

The original goal date to have the system in place July 1 "helped light the fire and get it all moving" but wasn't realistic, he said.

The selected firm, from a half-dozen who submitted bids, needed an extensive history of managing parking in cities Augusta's size or larger, and experience, including in the southeast, Ussery said.

While the city parking task force made several recommendations for the program, including how much it costs to park and how the program will be enforced, "the experts may think differently," he said. The Richmond County Sheriff's Office will not be issuing parking tickets, he said.

The system will include a few kiosks on each block where a motorist pays for a certain amount of time by inputting his or her license plate number, Ussery said.

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