Altoona officials were surprised when a veterans group approached them about hosting a $2.2 million project that had been planned for Eau Claire, but the tribute to those who served is already viewed as a good addition to River Prairie Park.
Leaders of the Eau Claire County Veterans Foundation met last week with the Altoona City Council, according to Councilman Dale Stuber, to give their pitch to weave their tribute trail into the city’s development along U.S. 53.
“I think it will be a good fit,” Stuber said. “It should draw a lot of people to the park because of the veterans memorial tribute being there.”
The park already has a meandering stream, a playground, amphitheater, smaller spaces for gatherings, a pond, a canoe launch on the Eau Claire River and the city’s parks and recreation offices.
“The big thing for the veterans was we already had the parking, infrastructure and trails there,” Stuber said.
The foundation’s Monday letter announcing their project’s change in location noted how River Prairie’s existing features meant they could focus more of their budget on monuments, a gathering space and other elements to honor veterans and educate the public about local people who have served in the military.
In Eau Claire, the veterans group’s plans included a paved trail, lighting, a restroom building and a parking lot — features that would’ve upgraded land along Forest Street from what the city calls a “special area” into a full-fledged community park.
Contention over naming the city-owned land along the Chippewa River brewed in recent weeks and spurred the veterans group to mull alternate locations.
In March, the foundation applied to the city to change the name of the Forest Street Special Area to Veterans Tribute Park. However, as a decision neared on renaming the 16.8 acres of city-owned land, opposition arose from groups that had been using parts of the property and would remain there alongside the veterans trail. Members of the Forest Street Community Gardens and North River Fronts Neighborhood Association spoke against the proposed park name at public hearings in June and earlier this month.
A city commission voted 7-3 against the name change on June 26 and urged the veterans foundation to meet with other park user groups. After a lengthy public hearing on July 8 in front of the Eau Claire City Council, the foundation requested two weeks to “explore all of our options,” to which the city complied.
On Monday the group announced in a letter that it is moving the $2.2 million project to Altoona.
Though aware of the naming controversy, both Stuber and fellow Councilman Red Hanks said they were surprised that things didn’t work out between the veterans foundation and Eau Claire, where the tribute trail had been planned for about two years.
They don’t expect a similar naming controversy to happen in Altoona, where the River Prairie Park name is already well-established and the trail would join it as a new feature.
“It would just incorporate it as part of River Prairie as one of the many features we have,” Hanks said.
Though the park name wouldn’t change, Stuber does expect that there will be signs placed to identify the veterans tribute trail.
Hanks said the public has been receptive to the city’s additions to the park and he expects the veterans trail will be welcomed as well.
“It’s just another feature to draw people out, show respect for their relatives, friends and others who served,” Hanks said.
Though exact locations are still to be discussed, the veterans group would erect monuments representing the Civil War up to current conflicts along the park’s existing recreational trail. A gathering plaza made of pavers inscribed with names of local veterans and flags for all the branches of the military would be created near the trail as well. Aspects recognizing Gold Star families and troops who were prisoners of war or missing in action would be included as well.
The veterans foundation has pledged to make an additional announcement later this week with more details on its plans since the location change.
Altoona is drafting an agreement with the foundation for its City Council to vote on as early as next week.
The veterans group will also need to seek a change to the agreement it had to get a $450,000 contribution from Eau Claire County for its project. The County Board would need to vote on amending that pact in recognition of the tribute’s site moving from Eau Claire to neighboring Altoona.