- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

Frustrated with poor maintenance by the federal government, the group that built the Vietnam War memorial is aiming to improve its little corner of the national Mall by taking over lawn care for 13.5 acres marred by weeds, moss and brown spots.

Officials with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund said they were moved to act after reading an Associated Press investigative story on the lack of federal money for the Mall, despite needed urgent repairs to the area known as “America’s front yard.”

The AP story in July analyzed congressional spending since 2005 and found the Mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for millions of dollars in extra funds doled out by lawmakers, compared with sites that are represented by powerful members of Congress. The Mall, covering some 650 acres, is in the District, which has no vote in the House or Senate.

Lawmakers frequently direct money to projects back home, but even as the problems became obvious at the national Mall - including the seawall visibly sinking in front of Thomas Jefferson’s memorial - Congress killed a bill last year that would have paid for repairs. In January, lawmakers nixed $200 million in proposed stimulus funding for the Mall.

The private Vietnam veterans group plans to spend $96,000 in the coming months to repair a broken irrigation system and provide weed treatment, fertilization, aeration and other work. The group, which is working with the National Park Service to make sure the improvements adhere to the agency’s specifications, intends to continue maintaining the grass in the long term, Fund President Jan C. Scruggs told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Repairs to the irrigation system were scheduled to begin Thursday.

One prominent Vietnam veteran involved with the fund, Texas businessman Peter Holt, who owns the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, remembers noticing problems when he spoke at a Memorial Day event at the monument this year. It had been years since he had visited the wall.

“I made just a passing comment: ‘Gee, it doesn’t look too good around here,’ ” said Mr. Holt, who chairs the fund’s campaign to raise money for a planned education center to be built on the mall. “I thought maybe it was because of a drought.”

Mr. Scruggs said he and Mr. Holt realized they needed to act if they wanted the grass to be improved anytime soon.

“He said, ‘Look, why don’t we fix our corner? That way we can set the standard for the Mall,’ ” Mr. Scruggs said. “Americans - we don’t wait for the government to take care of things.”

Mr. Scruggs said he hoped the effort might inspire other groups to take over lawn care elsewhere on the Mall. The veterans memorial fund could someday expand its own effort to encompass the area around the nearby reflecting pool, which is lined with bare, compacted earth instead of grass, he said.

The Park Service, which will continue mowing in the area, welcomes the effort, spokesman Bill Line said.

The national Mall did recently receive some stimulus money, and officials hope to soon start major renovation of the Lincoln Memorial grounds and reflecting pool, as well as repairs to the sinking seawall in front of the Jefferson Memorial.

The Trust for the National Mall, a fundraising group founded in 2007, is in discussions with the Vietnam Memorial fund about contributing to the future maintenance of the 13.5 acres, trust President Caroline Cunningham said. She called the project “a great test case” for public-private cooperation on the Mall.

“They have an energized group of constituents,” she said of the memorial fund. “The project is very manageable in terms of cost.”

Mr. Scruggs said the quality of the grass conveys a message to those who visit the monuments.

“Good grass visually has an impact on people,” Mr. Scruggs said in an e-mail. “Places like governors mansions, the White House, corporate headquarters, the American cemetery at Normandy have impeccable grass.”

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