Dayton to become home of VA national archive

and Barrie Barber

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald said his agency will locate its national archives in two historic buildings on the VA center’s sprawling West Dayton campus.

In a speech Tuesday before Dayton civic and business leaders here, McDonald said the agency’s massive archives will be housed in the national headquarters facility which was built in 1871, and the clubhouse which dates to 1881. He described the two buildings as a “fitting home” for the agency’s records.

The two buildings will undergo a major rehabilitation at a projected cost of about $20 million, which will include both government and private money. The old headquarters is vacant today.

“I think it’s something we have been working on and hoping for, for several years,” said Walter H. Rice, a federal judge and chairman of the non-profit American Veterans Heritage Center, which has worked to renovate historic buildings on the VA campus. “I think it’s going to be pivotal in not only bringing people to the campus to do archival research, it will eventually mean the restoration of two more buildings on the historic campus.”

The archive —acting as an “education center” to the public — would house archival records, memorabilia, artwork, architectural and archaeological artifacts in 21,000-square-feet between the two buildings. Exhibits would tell the story of the VA’s role in medicine, said Dayton VA Medical Center Director Glenn Costie. The archive would act as a repository for many of the VA’s 150 medical centers, 134 national cemeteries and 56 regional offices.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is the only Cabinet-level activity that does not have a place for its important papers and artifacts and this has been a long standing interest” to locate the archive in Dayton, said Costie.

McDonald’s announcement ends uncertainty about the VA’s commitment to Dayton as the home of the future archive, Costie said. “…It’s a definite that it’s coming to Dayton,” he said.

In a nod toward costs, McDonald, the former chief executive officer of Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, told the Dayton group, “We’ll need your active support for those improvements. And we look forward to working with you to making the archives a reality.”

A fund-raising campaign was expected to launch Memorial Day weekend, Rice said.

“We have been stymied in that because without that designation as the site of the archives no one is willing to make a donation to fund that restoration and certainly it’s understandable why that’s so,” he said.

Opening the archives could happen in stages, and depend on how fast the money comes in and final costs, Rice said.

Most of the Dayton VA campus, one of the three original VA sites opened two years following the end of the Civil War, was designated National Historic Landmark status in 2012. It will mark its 150th anniversary next year.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, among those who attended the speech, said, “We’re so excited about” the VA’s decision. “There is a lot of opportunity for private fund raising for the effort.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said McDonald telephoned him Tuesday morning to tell him Dayton had been picked. In a conference call with Ohio reporters, Portman said the agency has already set aside some federal dollars for the project, adding “this will be great for Dayton.”

“This is the culmination of a lot of hard work from Congressman (Mike) Turner, Senator (Sherrod) Brown and I have done since 2010,” Portman said.

In a statement, Turner, R-Dayton, said: “This had been a longstanding goal of mine for our community and I am proud of the work we have done to secure this honor.”

Brown, D-Ohio, said locating the archives in Dayton would “build upon the Miami Valley’s historic military ties and boost economic development and tourism for the region.”

McDonald’s announcement, made to members of the Dayton Development Coalition during its annual trip to Washington, was not entirely unexpected. As early as 2010, ideas were circulating to house the archives in two buildings on the VA Medical Center campus.

The archives itself would employ a handful of employees. But a previous Dayton Development Coalition study suggested about 440 jobs would be created in retail, tourism and education-related work within five years of its opening.

The Dayton coalition had pushed for the archives, arguing they would “provide a west anchor for historic preservation efforts” along the West Third Street corridor” and offer “an economic development boost” to the city’s west side. Dayton officials are hoping to link the archives to Wright State University’s public history program, which trains students for work in archives and records.

The coalition acknowledged that only a handful of jobs would be created to operate the archives. But they said jobs would be created through re-furbishing the buildings and “tourism.”

“Funding will have to be resolved and will almost certainly involve support from the community to match the VA commitment this is something the community has worked for many years and will support redevelopment of West Dayton,” said Michael Gessel, vice president of the Dayton coalition.

The federal government, which has military records dating back to before the Revolutionary War, has stored many of its records at the National Archives.

But a report issued by the VA in 2014 concluded “the current state of history at the Department of Veterans Affairs is fragmented, lacks a common focus and direction, and suffers from organizational and structural inertia impacting patrons who collect, preserve, present, and require historical information and products.”

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