Fargo National Cemetery expansion appears to be on hold
The Veterans Administration and a local honor guard both seeking to buy land for improvements, but fundraising and other efforts to build an indoor gathering and viewing center and parking lot are going strong
FARGO — With more burials than expected and no indoor facilities at the five-acre Fargo National Cemetery for veterans, an expansion plan is underway, but remains in somewhat of a holding pattern.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which opened the cemetery about three years ago, is looking at purchasing about 32 acres in adjacent land.
Additionally, the local Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, led by Commander Jason Hicks, would like to purchase another 3- to 5-acre parcel for a parking lot, indoor bathrooms and an indoor viewing and gathering facility.
Jake Gust owns both parcels of land.
The volunteer veterans group, which has formed a nonprofit organization for the project, would then donate the land to Cass County and would ask they lease it back to them for the project.
Hicks said Gust and his wife are first seeking a government entity to be involved in the smaller parcel if they sell; thus, the honor guard group is proposing the county's involvement.
The burials at the site, which Hicks calls the "Arlington National Cemetery of North Dakota," have reached about 600 as of last week. The cemetery currently has room for about 3,200 grave sites.
Hicks said they are seeing regionwide use of the cemetery. Hicks estimates there are about 75,000 veterans living within about 75 miles of the cemetery, including in Minnesota.
North Dakota is also said to have the most veterans per capita of any state, added Commissioner Jim Kapitan during discussion of the topic at the Cass County Commission meeting Monday, April 18.
Because of the growth in burials, and with the honor guard appearing at each ceremony, Hicks said the lack of parking and indoor facilities for his crew and ceremony guests are major problems.
Currently, many people are forced to park on the nearby county road or at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church.
As for indoor facilities, Hicks foresees a place where ceremonies could be held on the colder days or for viewing so a "95-year-old grandmother wouldn't have to sit out in the cold."
Hicks said the color guard is also planning for a segment of the land to be reserved for ceremonies for the many Native American veterans who will be buried there.
An architectural firm that would draw up plans for the building has volunteered their services, Hicks said, and North Dakota State University architectural students on May 6 will reveal their ideas on what the structure could look like.
The local National Guard has also agreed to help with preparing the land for the parking lot and building.
Hicks said the color guard has raised about $280,000 so far, enough to purchase the smaller piece of land. Big donors so far include the Hector Foundation, which has pledged about $100,000, and the Burgum Foundation, which just this past week donated $10,000.
Numerous fundraisers and individual donations have contributed to the total and the effort is going strong to continue raising funds to move the project forward, said Jim Graalum, another of the leaders for the project.
Graalum said they are also continuing to work with other partners, too, including the state which could supply funding and possibly help with a geothermal energy system for the building. He also said an engineering firm has offered its help at no cost on the project.
The reason the VA has built the structure is its regulation that a cemetery needs to be 100 acres before it would consider building a structure on the site. Hicks said the VA has been "impossible" to communicate with as they continue to work on plans or to find out if they will buy any more land soon.
Commissioner Chad Peterson said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven has been working with the agency to see what can be done on the expansion project. He noted the cemetery was part of the VA's way of providing smaller, more rural cemeteries for veterans closer to their homes.
Peterson said he would like to see a public/private partnership on the improvement for what he called "an amazing thing, a needful thing."
However, he didn't want it to be a "burden on taxpayers" if the county got involved later in the project, and said it needed to be done legally.
Hicks said he didn't think it would ever become a burden on the county as the land purchase would be fully funded and they are planning an endowment to maintain the building.
Commissioner Mary Scherling wondered if state funding could be sought, too, and if perhaps the veterans group was "thinking too small" on what could be done with the cemetery.
It was noted there is a state veterans cemetery in Bismarck that is totally state funded, but it is a farther drive for many in this region.
Scherling wondered if the state, though, couldn't find funds for the state's "most populous county."
Gust addressed the commissioners during Monday's meeting and said he was first approached by the VA about six years ago to sell his land and that the sale was completed about 3 years ago. He said the VA didn't want to buy more than 5 acres because an environmental impact study would have had to be done.
He sympathizes with wanting to get something done as he doesn't want to see a bugler in the honor guard trying to play at 10 below zero or the families standing in the cold.
Gust said he has put plenty of time in the effort, too, and is willing to sell his land. He said he just wants it "to be done right."
With poor parking and the chill factor at the cemetery — Hicks called the windswept area "North Dakota prairie at its finest" — the veterans group would like to see the project move ahead quickly. But with no word on decisions from the county, the VA or Hoeven's office, Hicks says it is on a holding pattern for now.