Jack Barnes is a man’s man.
Texas-born. Texas-raised. Twenty-four-year veteran of the U.S. Navy. A man who, even at 64, still possesses a good dose of that easily detectable but not-quite-describable Texas confidence.
All of this will likely serve him well as he embarks on a quest to salvage the plans of a group — the American Fallen Warrior Memorial Foundation — that recently appeared all but finished. You might remember that group as the ambitious but seemingly snake-bitten project that sought to build a 20-acre, $30-plus million national memorial for slain soldiers in Kansas City, Kan.
Formed in 2011, the group’s leaders had dreams of a sprawling memorial that, complete with star-shaped plaza and smart-chip technology, would honor those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Almost from its inception, however, the nonprofit group was beset by a series of episodes that raised eyebrows, led to questions about its use of funds and left the future of the proposed project in doubt.
Its co-founder and former executive director, Tonya Evans, emerged at the center of a small controversy following a Star story in 2012 that detailed her methods and personal financial history. Later, Evans engaged in a heated public debate with Florida-based sculptor Sandra Priest, who accused Evans of attempting to take one of her pieces without paying for it.
Things came to a head in October 2013, when the foundation’s board of directors removed Evans from her position following a two-week, cross-country fundraising tour that, according to minutes from a board meeting, resulted in $61,000 in losses for the organization.
Indeed, financial records for the end of 2013, the most recent available, paint a grim picture — net assets of $11,311, down from the $58,145 following the second quarter of the same year — and Barnes concedes that the group will be starting, essentially, from zero as it begins renewed fundraising efforts in June.
Barnes doesn’t deny the challenge facing him — “big project, big money,” he says — but he also speaks confidently about the project’s future.
The current president of the group’s board of directors, Barnes has plans to move to Kansas City within the next two months to “start shaking hands,” and has already reached out to local civic leaders seeking their support. As a way to honor those in uniform, the group will also hold a banquet May 16, Armed Forces Day, at the Kansas City Convention Center, complete with guest speakers and live entertainment.
Even after the foundation’s rocky past few years, meanwhile, Kansas City, Kan., spokesman Edwin Birch indicated that the city remains open to the idea of a memorial — though he’s also quick to mention that the Unified Government’s board of commissioners has not yet approved the donation of any land.
“We haven’t had any communication with them for a while, so of course we would have to revisit that, because time can bring change,” Birch said. “(But) we have not said, that I’m aware of, that we would not be open to what they’re trying to do.”
Barnes, for his part, insists on looking forward.
Despite the seemingly daunting odds he faces, despite the group’s discouraging recent history and the millions of dollars required to see the project through, he is confident that the memorial dreamed up years ago can still be brought to fruition.
“It can be done,” he said. “It’s been done in other cities across the country. It’s going to take more people than me. We just hope that Kansas and Missouri will fully embrace this initiative because it’s going to be built in their state, built in their city, and it’s going to be a beautiful memorial.”