Entertainer has proposal for national veterans museum in Hoffman Estates
Retired General James Conway admits when he was presented with the idea of a Hoffman Estates museum to honor the more than 40 million veterans who have served in the American Armed Forces, he was skeptical.
"My first reaction was that this is ambitious," said Conway, who served as the 34th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.
Here's a look at where some of the money would go toward construction of the National Veterans Museum:
$9,779,000: Establishment of a board, marketing materials, temporary offices, architectural renderings, conceptual drawings, three years of operational funding.
$32,174,000: 50 acres dedicated to the museum building, archives, library and underground parking. Additional acreage for future expansion. Site preparation about $10 million.
$215,510,000: Four-floor, 325,000-square-foot main exhibit building with administration and public areas, an auditorium and storage. Separate building for library and archives.
$90,000,000: 16 major galleries showcasing significant dates and places in American military history.
Source: National Veterans Museum
But within a few days of meeting with village officials and visiting the area where the museum is slated to be located — on nearly 200 acres at the northwest corner of Beverly Road and I-90 — he agreed to be board chairman for the National Veterans Museum.
"I came away very well-convinced. There's tremendous support there," he said, adding that he feels this "is an idea whose time has come."
National Veterans Museum President Joe Cantafio, who also serves as CEO of the Forgotten Heroes Foundation and entertains soldiers abroad and veterans at U.S. hospitals with his music, said the goal of the museum and attractions surrounding it is to "honor, educate and preserve."
The project would include a 325,000-square-foot museum with close to 40 galleries; a 150,000-square-foot library, archives and art building; a military park with three outdoor buildings for air, land and sea; and a housing project for veterans who are wounded, homeless or facing financial hardships.
There are also plans for a convention center and 200-room hotel, 14 acres of gardens, eight athletic fields, three outdoor concert and parade areas and a 20-acre National Veterans Cemetery.
Today, with the launching of the website nationalveteransmuseum.org, fundraising efforts will begin for the National Veterans Museum, which recently filed to be a 501(c)(3) organization and is a registered Illinois not-for-profit foundation.
The goal? Raise close to $600 million in about 1˝ years to complete the project by 2016.
Cantafio, who developed the museum concept in 2005, doesn't bring in more than a few thousand dollars annually with the Forgotten Heroes Foundation, but he said he has experience raising millions of dollars from his 22 years in the investment industry.
He estimates the entire National Veterans Museum project will cost between $800 million and $1 billion.
He said about $314 million for the project already has been promised to him through emails from various companies and individuals, but he declined to name potential donors because he hasn't collected the money yet. He said they will be listed on the website as checks come in, and that no state or federal money will be used.
"I thought the biggest challenge was going to be the funding," Cantafio said. "Funding at this point doesn't seem to be an issue."
So far, Cantafio said he hasn't spent a penny or taken in a penny.
"Nobody has gotten a paycheck yet and everybody that's in this project is in it because they believe in it," he said. He said members of the board — which will include 10 retired military personnel and five citizens who are CEOs of various companies and organizations — are not being paid for their work. Conway will get paid, but the amount is not public yet.
"I've dealt with 6˝ years of questioning myself and questioning the project, and it seemed like when General Conway joined, everybody wanted to be involved," Cantafio said.
Currently dozens of celebrities, corporations, veterans and friends in the financial industry are "circling around," hoping to help, Cantafio said, but he again would not list any names.
The project has received letters of endorsement from a number of political leaders, too, including Sen. Mark Kirk, 10th District Congressman Robert Dold, State Sen. Michael Noland and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Local businesses are also helping by not charging for services, Cantafio said.
"I reach out for help and I'm expecting to pay them something and they say, 'Absolutely not, let's get this museum built,'" he said.
Cantafio hopes to acquire the land for the museum by the end of the summer and have a groundbreaking by the end of the year. To do so, he will need to gather at least $22 million in the next few months. He is confident it can happen, and believes the man he plans to hire as a fundraising consultant — who he said has raised more than $800 billion for corporations in his career and will remain unnamed for another month — will bring success.
Ryan Trottier is the vice president of land development for Plote Properties, which for decades has owned the land on which the museum would be built. In that time, many ideas for the property have been proposed, but this one stands out to him because of the extensive plans.
"We like the use," he said, adding that the museum is "a very impressive project" with a good board of directors. "We've had discussions with them and we're cautiously optimistic."
"We feel good about them because they continue to make positive steps," he added.
On June 13, 2011, Plote sent Cantafio a letter stating an asking price totaling about $20 million for several parcels that would be part of various phases of the project, and agreeing not to entertain other offers for six months because the National Veterans Museum was intending to "commence fundraising efforts within the next 30 days."
Trottier said the terms of the letter were not extended last December, but that Plote is still very interested in the project.
"We're working in good faith. If someone else was interested (in the land) we'd alert them (the National Veterans Museum) immediately," he said, adding he hopes for a formal agreement within six months.
Cantafio said while Texas is the state with the most veterans, the area within a 200-mile radius of Chicago has the highest concentration of veterans — 5.2 million. Plus, he said, there are more VA hospitals in the Midwest than anywhere else in the country.
"It's perfectly placed in the center of the United States," Cantafio said of the Hoffman Estates location.
Mayor William McLeod said the museum would be beneficial not only to hotels, restaurants and shops in Hoffman Estates, but throughout the Northwest suburbs.
"It's an intriguing prospect, and we'd certainly love to have it," he said. "I think they've got some pretty good people behind them backing it."
But he did have some reservations about whether the project could actually be completed.
"Obviously they're going to have to get the financing to be able to do it. Either they will or they won't," he said.
"It's not going to happen overnight," he added. "I think there's more groundwork to be done first."
Funding proved to be an obstacle to plans announced in November 2001 for a National Veterans Museum at the Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. They "went on the back burner" for funding reasons and because "the legacy of veterans is preserved at the Smithsonian Museum," said Phil Budahn, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cantafio also had trouble with funding when he first tried to build the museum in San Antonio, where state and local help fell through, and where he felt things were moving too slowly. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he would be running for president, Cantafio decided he needed a different location.
"That's when I said this thing is never going to be built in San Antonio," he said. "When we decided to put it here (in Hoffman Estates), everybody started to push it faster."
First things first
General Conway said for now he is focused on getting the first phase of the project done, which includes the main museum facility. Cantafio said, however, if enough money is raised quickly he would like to see all four phases of the project happen at once, which he says will save millions of dollars.
"This museum, if it's done right ... will have 30 or maybe 40 virtual experiences where young people, and old people, too, will better understand what service members have gone though in the decades," Conway said, adding that it would highlight every conflict the United States has ever been in.
Cantafio said there will be free parking and a $10 admission fee. When all the buildings are open, admission will be $15. Veterans with a valid ID and their families will be admitted for free on Tuesdays.
The project plans state that $90 million will go toward state-of-the-art exhibits, which will include holograms and rooms that will let visitors feel what it is like to be in the jungles of Vietnam or caves of Afghanistan, or be a prisoner of war, among other experiences.
"You're going to feel that, what it's like to be a soldier," Cantafio said.
Conway called the plans for a veterans cemetery and ideas to help homeless veterans through the museum project "incredibly noble."
"The nation's conscience has a little bit of guilt pangs after what happened with our Vietnam guys and gals," Conway said, adding that he thinks it has helped people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I think it's a great way for the country to feel good about itself."
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