SARASOTA -- With 5,000 veterans already laid to rest at Sarasota National Cemetery since its opening in 2009, it is a "garden of stone that keeps growing," said Steve Muro, a Veterans Affairs under secretary.
Muro spoke at the groundbreaking Monday for Patriot Plaza, a 2,800-seat, glass-covered amphitheater at the cemetery off Clark Road south of Sarasota.
The Patterson Foundation is funding the $8 million facility, which is expected to be completed by spring of 2014. Patterson is also funding an endowment to maintain the facility. No taxpayer money will be used.
The endowment is designed to ensure Patriot Plaza is as pristine 100 years from now as it will be at its dedication, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation.
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Plans for Patriot Plaza call for a 20,800-square-foot glass covering, 48,000 square feet of walkways and gathering areas, an 80-foot-tall stainless steel flagpole, commissioned art, and a rostrum the size of 1- 1/2 tennis courts seating a 55-piece orchestra.
It will give crowds a comfortable
place to sit, protected from the elements.
Within 20 years, it is estimated 100,000 veterans and spouses will be laid to rest in the cemetery.
The vision for Patriot Plaza was to create not only something outstanding for the region, but for the country, Jacobs said. Patriot Plaza could become a prototype for other national cemeteries across the country.
Patterson began working with the National Cemetery Administration on the design and construction of Patriot Plaza in 2010.
It is the first time a private philanthropy has worked with Veterans Affairs on a project of such complexity at a national cemetery.
It wasn't easy, Muro said, referring to federal laws that strictly control what can be done at a national cemetery.
Patterson officials intend to share their vision of how public and private partnerships can create enhancements at national cemeteries to honor those who served their country.
Muro spoke about the bond between veterans and their country, and borrowed from one of his predecessors, Robin L. Higgins, a former under secretary for Memorial Affairs in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
"She felt that the veteran and their country share a special bond -- the span of life and death. There is the knowledge that someone truly cares and always will," Muro said.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said his district includes 90,000 veterans, but when family members are calculated, the cemetery actually represents about 400,000 people.
"This is a project that a lot of people around the country would be interested in for their national cemetery," Buchanan said. "This is the start of something big not only for our region but for the country."