By Stephanie Davis | Photo by Gery Petrof
The Wall will be parked at the corner of Craigmere and Bagley Road, off Interstate 71 in Middleburg Heights. The 8-foot wall (360 feet in length) is an 80-percent scale version of the original wall in Washington and contains every name of those who died in the War (58,000-plus).
“As part of our highlighting the Chamber to the community, having the Wall here fits with our Chamber’s goals,” John Grech, President of the Middleburg Chamber of Commerce, says. “It’s highlighting our city while honoring our veterans. We look at it from a veteran angle and also from a business angle. Other than meeting veterans, this is an opportunity to network with other business leaders in the community.”
Thanks to the timing of the Wall’s arrival, Middleburg Heights is now listed on the Destination Cleveland website list of things to do while at RNC. “Though our Wall events are not political at all, people will be coming from across the country to be part of the RNC,” Grech says of the opportunity for out-of-town visitors to make Middleburg Heights a planned stop.
Cindy Peck, Middleburg Heights Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, adds, “The Wall is good for the community, for kids to learn about Vietnam and veterans’ service, and it’s closure for people who served in Vietnam.”
The wall is part of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, a veteran-owned group that travels the States to honor those who gave their lives. AVTT is contracted by The Texas Freedom Tribute, a 501c3 that provides the Wall, crew, and setup.
The Wall’s landing in Middleburg Heights was no small feat, according to Grech. About a year ago, the AVTT notified nonprofits about hosting it. Once the MHCC board got wind of it, “Our board unanimously approved having it,” Grech says.
The biggest challenge initially was the substantial cost to bring the wall to the city ($10,000 just to transport). To cover costs, the chamber launched a fundraising effort. Middleburg now has 14 sponsors and dozens of volunteers involved. “We didn’t really want to advertise until we knew we would be able to secure the wall. Our chamber, based on overwhelming response of sponsors, was able to fully fund it. Any additional funds, we will donate back to veteran organizations,” Grech says, noting guests can attend for free.
Since the Wall may garner widespread appeal, Grech notes that parking may present challenges. “We don’t have a way to gauge how many people will attend. Working with estimates, we anticipate anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 over the course of five days. We are fortunate to have a couple shuttles that drivers provided,” Grech says. Parking will be available at Bethel Church across the street from Middleburg Commons as well as at Big Creek Elementary School.
During the week the Wall is here, some type of ceremony or event is planned for each day, according to Peck. Event details, and related volunteer opportunities, are on the Chamber’s website (middleburgheightschamber.com).
Events include a POW ceremony and a pinning hosted by the Veterans Affairs Group and the Hospice of the Western Reserve. Mark Zannoni, author, will be at the Middleburg Heights library branch speaking on his book, “Vietnam: 35 Years after the Fall of Saigon.” Tom Sweeney is lined up to address Cleveland’s Fisher House, a type of housing for military families.
“We have a little something every day to highlight what our veterans had to go through … to celebrate their lives and what they gave us,” Peck says.
“We plan to draw busloads of veterans from the community,” she adds, mentioning one veteran of note, John Hohne of the motorcycle group, Rolling Thunder, who has been instrumental in the Wall’s event planning. With Holmes’ help, she says there will be up to 1,000 vehicles, including motorcycles and military vehicles, in the initial Wall escort.
The Wall escort marks the event’s kickoff, according to Grech, when the Wall will travel up I-71 via 303 around 4-5 pm on July 18. “We’re going to have an escort coming in from 71 who will get off at Pearl Road. Residents and veterans will follow it and line Pearl Road. Though nothing’s formalized, word of mouth alone has taken this project to another level.”
While Peck and Grech agree the Wall should boost Middleburg Heights’ appeal in the next month, just as significant for the city, according to Grech, is the Chamber’s new direction in the last year. “Our chamber had a pretty big changeover in the last 12 months. Cindy’s our ‘new’ executive director, since July 2015,” Grech says. (Her predecessor served in that role for 25 years.) To brand its new direction, the Chamber adopted a new logo – “On the move.” “We are more member focused now.”
While the Wall’s upcoming arrival has put Middleburg and its Chamber on the map, concurrently, the Chamber has experienced unprecedented growth in the last year.
“We’ve significantly grown over the last 10 months — 28 percent in 10 months,” Grech says. “We have 238 members now and were at about 186 last year at this time – that’s 28 percent in less than a year. Obviously, the more members we have, the more beneficial it is for everybody,” he says of the members who range from entry level to seniors and retirees.
“Cindy came on board and focused on getting into the community and asking whether people were involved. She gathered feedback – positive and negative. What they thought of us helped us tailor what we do going forward,” he adds.
“I did a survey in the fall to get member feedback,” Peck adds. “Overwhelmingly, they were looking for after-hours events, such as sampling craft beers while networking. They want networking. So offering that and topical speakers really helped.”
Adds Peck, “Last week there were eight inquiries about membership in two days. More people are starting to hear about the chamber, what we’re doing and becoming involved in, and now they want to be more proactive in the community.”
And the Chamber is branching beyond its borders, now actively joining forces with other local cities. For example, because Middleburg is part of a three-city school district that includes Berea and Brook Park, Peck says the city of Middleburg has opted to rearrange its business expo, formerly known as Biz Expo. “We’re changing it this year to ‘Taste of Three Cities Community Expo’ to involve all three communities, residents, and businesses. Since we are in one school system, it’s good that we can work together. We’re all here for the same reason – to promote our businesses and connect with the community.”
For more information: americanveteranstravelingtribute.com