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 somewhat on hold.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which opened the cemetery about three years ago, plans to purchase about 32 acres of adjacent land.
Additionally, the local Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, led by Commander Jason Hicks, would like to purchase another 3-5 acre parcel for parking, indoor bathrooms, and an indoor viewing and mustering facility.
Jake Gust owns both parcels of land.
The volunteer veterans group, which formed a nonprofit for the project, would then donate the land to Cass County and ask it to lease it for the project.
Hicks said Gust and his wife first sought to have a government entity involved with the smaller parcel if they sold; thus, the honor guard group proposes county involvement.
Burials at the site, which Hicks calls “Arlington National Cemetery in North Dakota,” reached about 600 last week. The cemetery currently has room for approximately 3,200 burial sites.
Hicks said they are seeing regional 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 would also have the highest number of veterans per capita of any state, Commissioner Jim Kapitan added when discussing the topic at the Cass County Commission meeting on Monday, April 18.
Due to the increase in burials and the presence of the honor guard at each ceremony, Hicks said the lack of parking and indoor facilities for his crew and ceremony guests were major issues.
Currently many people are forced to park on the nearby county road or at the Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church.
As for indoor facilities, Hicks envisions a place where ceremonies could take place on the coldest days or to be viewed so a “95-year-old grandma doesn’t have to sit in the cold.” .
Hicks said the Color Party also plans to set aside part of the grounds for ceremonies for the many Native American veterans who will be buried there.
1/3: The Sundogs shine above the Fargo National Cemetery northwest of the city Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. A group of veterans are working tirelessly to try to improve the facility by adding parking and an observation building and indoor gathering at the site which can be ‘brutal’ during the winter months during ceremonies.
2/3: Fargo National Cemetery on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. David Olson/The Forum
3/3: Frost covers veterans’ graves at Fargo National Cemetery on January 2, 2021.
An architectural firm that would develop plans for the building has offered its services, Hicks said, and architecture students from North Dakota State University will unveil their ideas on May 6 for what the building might look like. structure.
The local National Guard has also agreed to help prepare the ground for the parking lot and the building.
Hicks said the color guard has raised about $280,000 so far, enough to buy the smaller pitch. Major donors so far include the Hector Foundation, which has pledged around $100,000, and the Burgum Foundation, which last week donated $10,000.
Many fundraisers and individual donations contributed to the total and the effort continues to continue raising funds to move the project forward, said Jim Graalum, another of the project’s leaders.
Graalum said they also continue to work with other partners, including the state who could provide funding and possibly help with a geothermal energy system for the building. He also said an engineering firm offered to help with the project at no cost.
The reason the VA built the structure is its regulation that a cemetery must be 100 acres in size before it will consider building a structure on the site. Hicks said it was “unable” to communicate with VA as they continued to work on plans or to find out if they would be purchasing more land soon.
Commissioner Chad Peterson said US Senator John Hoeven was working with the agency to see what could be done on the expansion project. He noted that the cemetery was part of how VA provided smaller, more rural cemeteries for veterans closer to home.
Peterson said he would like to see a public/private partnership on improving what he called “an amazing thing, a necessary thing”.
However, he didn’t want it to be a “burden on the taxpayers” if the county later got involved in the project, and said it had to be done legally.
Hicks said he doesn’t think it will ever become a burden on the county because the purchase of the land will be fully funded and they are planning an endowment to maintain the building.
Commissioner Mary Scherling wondered if state funding could also be sought, and if perhaps the veterans group was “thinking too small” about what could be done with the cemetery.
It was noted that there is a State Veterans Cemetery in Bismarck which is fully funded by the state, but it is a drive further for many in this area.
Scherling wondered if the state, however, couldn’t find funds for the state’s “most populous county.”
Gust addressed the commissioners at Monday’s meeting and said he was first approached by the VA about six years ago to sell his land and the sale was completed about 3 years. 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 do something because he doesn’t want to see a bugler in the honor guard trying to play 10 below zero or the families standing in the cold.
Gust said he also dedicated a lot of time to this effort and was ready to sell his land. He said he just wanted “it done right”.
With poor parking and the chill factor at the cemetery — Hicks called the windswept area “North Dakota prairie at its best” — the veterans group would like to see the project move forward quickly. But with no word on decisions from the county, the VA or Hoeven’s office, Hicks says that’s on hold at this time.