FORT KENT, Maine — If the commander of Martin-Klein American Legion Post 133 has his way, veterans in the St. John Valley could have a new center and museum within the next several years.
“We are teaming up with the [Fort Kent] historical society to look at raising funds to try to put together a veterans center,” Duane Belanger said this past week. “We need a place where veterans can get together to talk and for the young and old to be together.”
Belanger said that the gathering places for local veterans are either too small, such the Legion Hall, or closed because of neglect and storm damage, as is the case for the old Veterans of Foreign War building on Fort Kent’s Main Street.
Belanger said he envisions the new Northern Maine Veterans Museum & Community Center as a “community magnet open to the public to provide a place for veterans to congregate and share common experiences and interact with all generations [and] providing a living, breathing interactive education to young and old as to the true cost of freedom.”
The proposed building will include meeting space, a kitchen, technology for teleconference meetings, office space for Veterans’ Affairs outreach workers, display areas for veterans’ memorabilia, a “wall of honor” listing all local veterans and an outdoor park and green space.
Joining forces with the historical society, according to Belanger, will enable volunteers and staff to preserve veterans’ stories, memories and artifacts in one location that is accessible to the public.
“We need to save these stories and record them, and we needed a place where we can do that,” he said. “The more open our center is, the more people will be encouraged to come in, sit down and share stories.”
Ideally, Belanger said area schoolchildren will be able to hear veterans’ firsthand accounts of service and sacrifice.
“We would love to see the young kids come in to share in this information,” he said. “Then they can walk away with knowledge of experiences from 50 years ago.”
The center is still in the talking stage and right now Belanger is looking at options for space and land within the Fort Kent community.
He figures he’ll need to raise roughly $250,000 to make the center a reality.
Fundraisers are planned, including Freedom Fest 2014, which is slated to bring movie actor and singer Thomas Ian Nicholas to the area for an outdoor concert.
The date for the show — featuring the star of the “American Pie” series and “Rookie of the Year” — has not been established, but Belanger said the performer is on board for the fundraiser.
“He primarily does these shows down south, but last spring he committed to coming up north,” Belanger said. “Thomas Ian Nicholas is very committed to veterans’ causes.”
Belanger said community center organizers have also been in contact with professional sports foundations, including the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins, to arrange donations of team items for fundraising auctions.
“The energy is really starting to build [and] a lot of people feel it’s a wicked good idea,” Belanger said. “I have not had one person say anything negative about this plan. We are starting to get calls from people about ideas of available land here and there.”
Although the center will ideally be located in the middle of Fort Kent, Belanger is quick to say it is for all St. John Valley veterans and he hopes to break ground in 2015.
“This is for everyone,” he said. “No matter where you lived, no matter when you served and no matter where you served, this is for northern Maine veterans.”