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Acrimony, distrust surrounded sunk plans for national Medal of Honor Museum in SC

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On a warm afternoon in September, Mayor Will Haynie huddled with a small group at Mount Pleasant Town Hall hoping to salvage plans to build a lasting tribute to the nation’s most celebrated war heroes.

Just days before, the head of the national Medal of Honor Museum had announced that after more than six years of planning, the $100 million project might abandon this growing harborside town for another city in a larger market.

The news didn’t sit well with the town, but Haynie’s closed-door confab didn’t sway the museum CEO from his intention to leave. They did agree on one thing, though: Even if things didn’t work out here, neither side should disparage the other.

Mayor-elect Will Haynie (copy)

Will Haynie speaks in Mount Pleasant town hall on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, after a landslide victory over incumbent Mayor Linda Page to lead South Carolina's fourth-largest city. Wade Spees/Staff

It was a little late for that. Acrimony and suspicion had infested the much-vaunted project for many months. Each party involved, in some way, had felt bullied, misled or both over the years-long planning process as disagreements over the museum’s design divided the town.

That picture became clear in a Post and Courier review of thousands of emails and other correspondence among town leaders, museum officials and board members at Patriots Point, the state attraction where the museum was to be built.

The records, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal how a well-intentioned effort to showcase valor and courage devolved into a dysfunctional showdown in which each side jockeyed for the public high ground amid an atmosphere riddled with personal squabbles and distrust.

In emails to confidantes, Haynie groused about the arrogance of the foundation planning the museum while an ally on Town Council branded the group’s redesign efforts a “campaign of deception.” The museum CEO, in turn, chided town officials over perceived threats and misrepresentations about the project. The Patriots Point board chairman, meanwhile, bemoaned a lack of respect from the foundation, lamenting that one museum leader had not “eaten enough grits and boiled peanuts” to understand the politics of the South.

Both in private and in public, people called into question others’ loyalty to the community, commitment to the project and even downright patriotism. In the balance hung a project that museum planners said would attract several hundred thousand visitors a year and put the town on the national map.

For anyone who closely followed the Medal of Honor Museum’s saga, the conflict was abundantly clear. What’s less known is the months-long meltdown that led to its unraveling.

Medal of Honor Museum (copy)

The Medal of Honor Museum Foundation was granted a lease of $1 a year for 99 years by the Patriots Point Development Authority. The development authority's board voted to terminate the lease in December. Brad Nettles/Staff

***

When the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation was established in 2013, its effort to build the museum at Patriots Point seemed an ideal fit for the attraction's state-mandated mission to foster “pride and patriotism in our nation and its heritage.”

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, made up of medal recipients, already had its offices and a small museum aboard Patriots Point’s signature attraction, the Yorktown, a World War II-era Navy aircraft carrier. And Mount Pleasant had a champion at the ready in retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston, who received the Medal of Honor in 1970 after leading his troops through a key Vietnam War battle while seriously wounded.

“It made a lot of sense to a lot of people,” Mac Burdette, Patriots Point’s longtime director, said of the planned museum.

Livingston became one of the first board members for the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, the South Carolina nonprofit formed to build the structure. An agreement gave Patriots Point exclusive rights to the project for 10 years. And the effort seemed to get off to a promising start.

The museum secured a $5 million pledge from the state of South Carolina, and the town agreed to contribute money to relocate a road to suit the museum’s needs. Texas billionaire Ross Perot even paid a visit to Charleston to promote the museum’s fundraising efforts, headlining a luncheon at King Street’s four-diamond steakhouse, Hall’s Chophouse.

“At some point, they were moving along and things were good,” said Linda Page, Mount Pleasant’s mayor from 2013 through 2017.

But some saw potential problems brewing. Former Town Councilman Paul Gawrych, for one, worried that the foundation wasn’t talking enough with the town and Patriots Point about its plans to build a structure taller than town zoning allowed. He conveyed his concerns in a February 2016 email to Page, who replied that she had only seen the design so far in a book.

“I just detect that no one is properly talking and we do not want a final design coming our way on something this grand for the world to see and then tell them they need a variance to make it work,” Gawrych wrote.

Meanwhile, Patriots Point officials increasingly felt they were being pressured to do what the foundation wanted.

The foundation insisted on building on a plot of land directly on the waterfront, a move that presented wetlands issues and required a complicated road relocation to open up space for the museum. Patriots Point officials preferred another spot but conceded to the foundation’s wishes, agreeing to lease the desired property at a price of $1 a year for 99 years.

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The original design for a National Medal of Honor Museum, to be located on state-owned land at Patriots Point, caused concern over variances it would require, particularly for its height. Safdie Architects/Provided

Being state land, the lease required approval from the Legislature. But when the time came to get lawmakers’ blessing, Burdette and Patriots Point Chairman Ray Chandler found themselves alone at a critical hearing. No one from the foundation bothered to show up.

Though the foundation’s lease was narrowly approved by one vote, “they never even said ‘Thank you,’” Chandler recalled.

***

Having General Livingston as the face of the project gave it real clout, particularly in Columbia. But as time passed, tensions grew between Livingston and some of his fellow foundation board members, culminating with an unsuccessful attempt in November 2014 to oust him from the panel.

Livingston remained an active member despite the challenge but later chose to resign with six other board members during a showdown in early 2017 over the hiring of a new CEO. Livingston said at the time that he didn’t like the way the board was being run and the hiring process only amplified his concerns. Livingston declined to be interviewed for this article. 

The mass defection, and Livingston’s departure in particular, alarmed town officials, who began to wonder about the project’s viability and the foundation’s ability to raise the necessary money. Those concerns only grew after the new CEO, Mark Updegrove, decided to leave the foundation after less than a year, citing personal health reasons.

As the foundation searched for its fourth CEO in five years, the project was dealt another blow when Mount Pleasant’s nine-member Planning Commission voted down the Medal of Honor Museum's design in January last year. The commission cited issues with variances needed for the building’s proposed height, setbacks and parking requirements.

Created by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the about 90,000-square-foot museum design included three buildings: a pavilion for the lobby and an auditorium, the main museum building and a chapel. The museum structure was drawn to invoke the shape of the Medal of Honor itself, with five inclined gallery spaces surrounding a naturally lit central hall. The smaller, star-shaped chapel would be connected to the museum by a pedestrian bridge. 

The original application asked that the maximum building height be increased from 50 feet to 140 feet for the museum and 80 feet for the other structures.

National Medal of Honor Museum_Museum from Yorktown at dusk_courtesy of Safdie Architects (copy) (copy) (copy)

This rendering shows the design for a National Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point. Design alternatives were later presented to the community but never formally submitted to the Town of Mount Pleasant. Safdie Architects/Provided

The day after the vote, Mount Pleasant and Patriots Point officials exchanged emails lamenting that foundation officials hadn’t approached the town sooner to discuss their plans, saying they had been warned height would be an issue.

“I told the MOH executives over a year ago that they made a bad mistake not checking on our zoning ordinance with the town before designing the building,” Town Councilman Gary Santos stated in an email to Haynie and council members. “They blew me off as if it were no big deal. It's a big deal now.”

Haynie, elected mayor just months before on a platform aimed at curbing town growth, urged council members to hold their tongues while the foundation rethought its plans so as not to jeopardize the project.

***

Town officials seemed to assume the foundation would scale back its plans in response to the Planning Commission’s denial. But the foundation’s chairman, Bill Phillips, soon would disabuse them of that notion. A month after the vote, he suggested at a Patriots Point board meeting that the foundation might take the museum elsewhere if the design wasn’t approved. That didn’t go over well.

In a flurry of emails after the meeting, board member Susan Marlowe stated she felt the panel needed to be “deloused” after meeting with Phillips. Calling Phillips’ remarks offensive, fellow board member Pat Waters predicted that talk of leaving was an empty threat. He and others also disparaged the design, saying there was little support for such a grand structure. Waters wrote that Joe Bustos, chairman of council’s Planning Committee, was “all in to stop the hideous monster.”

“We are doing the recipients a favor by not allowing that monstrosity,” Waters added.

Chandler, the Patriots Point chairman, confided to his colleagues that he regretted championing the project and its intent to “dominate and distort Patriots Point.” He found the notion that the museum would somehow rescue Patriots Point insulting.

Chandler wrote that the museum was conceived when its organizers saw Patriots Point as “a shabby, second-rate, bush-league attraction that was an embarrassment to Mount Pleasant and to the State.” But a lot had changed since then. Now, Patriots Point was thriving while the museum effort was on life-support, a terminal, self-inflicted condition that left the foundation with little chance of drawing the 250,000 visitors needed to sustain it each year, he stated.

Medal of Honor Museum seeks $11 million from state lawmakers (copy)

Carlyle Blakeney (left), the vice chairman of the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, and Medal of Honor recipient retired Marine Maj. Gen. James Livingston show a map of the location for a planned Medal of Honor Museum to South Carolina state lawmakers during a House subcommittee meeting in Columbia. File/AP

“The message for the Fathers of Mt Pleasant should be. We do not need it,” Chandler wrote of the museum.

Over the past few years, Chandler had sent multiple letters to the foundation asking for updates on fundraising — requests he felt were never answered in full. He had also been looking into whether the foundation had violated its nonprofit status by lobbying officials to support the design. In the end, he decided they had not.

“It appears that being an (expletive) does not disqualify one from receiving tax exempt status,” he wrote.

Far from dissuaded, Phillips requested a private audience with Haynie in March 2018 and reiterated the possibility of taking the museum elsewhere. The threat bothered Haynie, who relayed his concerns in an email to Phillips later that day.

“I want you to know that I’m greatly disturbed by the fact that your foundation received $5 million of SC taxpayers money, spent $3.5 million on a design that was not coordinated with the local governing body, but I was told if we don’t approve it as is, you will leave Mount Pleasant,” the mayor wrote. “It appears this is a one-way street. I think this shows great disrespect for both local and state government and is highly regrettable.”

Phillips replied that it was “patently false” that the foundation was not coordinating with the town. He also maintained that the state’s $5 million investment was safe. He added that it was regrettable that the discussion so far had focused on issues like height when the museum stood to be a “wonderful beacon of inspiration” that would bring jobs and tax revenue to the town.

A steady stream of emails and letters soon began to flow into the town from supporters of the project, including Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, a local who urged the town to take advantage of “the incredible opportunity to be associated with this soon to be National Treasure.”

In an email to colleagues, Town Councilman Tom O’Rourke fretted that the museum foundation and its designers were trying to lay blame on the town for the project’s setbacks. He speculated that it was a smoke screen to obscure the fact “that they are seriously struggling to raise money.”

***

Into this breach stepped Joe Daniels, who had accepted an offer to lead the museum effort. Mount Pleasant officials saw in Daniels a smart, articulate and capable man with a proven track record as CEO of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

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Joe Daniels, the CEO of the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, was previously the head of the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. File/Wade Spees.

He helped lead a fundraising campaign that raised more than $450 million for the project, about quadruple the estimated cost for the Medal of Honor Museum. He had also navigated controversy to get it built, as one might expect for a structure that involved a swirl of ideas, emotions and opinions surrounding the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks.

People railed against the 9/11 memorial’s decision to include the names of the hijackers, its underground location and even the key chains in the gift shop. People opposed the fact that there even was a gift shop. The project took longer to complete, as New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten noted, than it took to find the orchestrator of the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

But Daniels got it done.

For the first few months after his arrival in late March last year, things seemed hopeful. There were coffee meetings, lunch meetings, cordial follow-up emails and even a note from Daniels thanking Haynie and Bustos for playing a “critical role in allowing the beginning of a healthier environment to take root.” Officials wondered if a compromise might actually be reached.

But, all the while, the museum’s planned design loomed over the discussion.

Architect Safdie brought top-notch credentials, having built projects everywhere from Idaho to Singapore, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Israel, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore and Habitat ‘67 in Montreal. Still, the building’s height, the character of the $3.5 million design and the Planning Commission’s denial had already set the public debate in motion.

In late May, an article in the Charleston Mercury newspaper drew Haynie’s ire by portraying Daniels as a man on a mission going up against restless natives with their knives out to fight "something new and daring." In an email to Patriots Point officials, the mayor chafed at the way the town was being portrayed and questioned whether the foundation had any intention of modifying the museum’s design.

Chandler warned Haynie that museum officials, including chairman Phillips, were trying to “whipsaw him.” Invoking the late Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local,” Chandler told Haynie that Phillips didn’t understand Southern politics, “a fatal flaw.”

“He has not eaten enough grits and boiled peanuts,” Chandler wrote.

Leading into last summer, however, the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation made some changes. With the recommendation of the town, it had withdrawn its zoning application. Phillips quietly resigned, and a board member from Nevada, Peter Stent, took his place as chairman. And perhaps most importantly, Daniels announced dates for three public meetings where community members could view, and vote on, new design alternatives.

Tensions continued to simmer, nonetheless. When Daniels emailed Chandler at the end of June to thank for him appearing at a fundraiser, Chandler blistered the museum CEO over a sentence in a Post and Courier editorial that suggested the project would breathe new life into Patriots Point.

“I want to make this very clear if I hear this comparison again, I will withdraw all of my support from your project,” Chandler wrote.

Daniels retorted that Chandler was obsessing over one sentence in the piece and missing the big picture. “Really inappropriate response. No need to email further.”

A copy of the emailed exchange ended up in the hands of Zeb Williams, senior legal counsel for the South Carolina Legislative Council. He forwarded to it Haynie, adding:

“For (expletive)’s sake... Could we just get out of our own way at least every once in a while? This seems totally self-inflicted if you ask me.”

***

In the run-up to the first public meeting on a potential new design, Daniels emailed Bustos and Haynie to make sure they were coming. Haynie asked if town officials could get a preview before the session, but Daniels indicated the architect would be working on his plans right up until the final hours.

At the July 26 meeting at Alhambra Hall, attendees got a first look at two new variations, dubbed the “Pavilion” model and the “Village” model. Both were shorter — about 100 and 70 feet, respectively — though they still exceeded the town’s height limit. Both also used the same shapes seen in the original design, though they were arranged differently.

The next morning, Daniels emailed Bustos and said he had heard there was some disappointment in the new designs. Bustos replied that it was “a repackaging of the same design” that, if submitted, would generate a prolonged fight that “will certainly be a problem for fundraising.”

Daniels cautioned Bustos against threatening a fight, calling it “highly counterproductive.” He insisted the design had changed and bristled at the implication that his approach had been deceptive. “Let’s skip the character attacks,” he wrote.

Bustos forwarded the message to Gen. Livingston, who replied: “Sounds like a line in the sand. Not good.”

As the days passed, Haynie, Bustos and their allies continued to fret about the town taking the blame for the museum’s problems, which they considered unfair. They insisted the town had bent over backward to help the project succeed while the foundation ignored the town’s rules.

Feeling the town was losing this public relations battle, on Aug. 7, Haynie used his private email account to send out a three-page strategic communications plan aimed at countering a perceived "PR offensive" by the foundation. The plan, sent to unspecified recipients, laid out goals such as submitting at least two letters to The Post and Courier per week. This, he said, might sway opinion in the town’s favor or cause the newspaper to “see fatigue in the amount of letters and stop running any of them.”

“It is paramount for the town to protect its ‘brand’ and image of the Mount Pleasant,” the plan read. “The town must ensure the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation does not turn this situation into an ‘us vs. them’ scenario, harming the town’s public image.”

His plan also called for a “concerted effort in all media interaction” to highlight issues other than the museum’s height and looks. “The ‘ugly building’ narrative could be considered petty if used too often.”

The next day, a call from a New York Times reporter seemed to confirm Haynie’s fears. The reporter’s question had led Haynie to believe Daniels was casting the situation as recalcitrant locals fighting all changes to their formerly cozy small coastal town, he told allies in an email.

“I see that he has gone from being cooperative to critical. I think he sees the death spiral,” Haynie wrote. “He has taken the gloves off so I am now also escalating my criticism."

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Susan Marlowe of the Patriots Point board concurred, stating that Daniels’ narrative was an attempt to hide the foundation’s financial mismanagement of the project.

“Hate to say it, but Daniel’s new whine is class snobbery typical of people from off – they want to come and change things with the implication is they’re smarter than locals,” she wrote. “I’m sad to see a different character evolve as the pressure has increased. He has taken off his salesman's gloves. Great job Will.”

By the time the third and final public meeting on the design process rolled around in August, acrimony surrounding the project was well entrenched. Bustos told Daniels in an email that he was skipping the session and condemned the foundation for using the 90-day extension the town had granted to “carry out a campaign of deception.”

Then, near the end of the month, Haynie started discussing a possible public-private collaboration to cut the museum’s costs and “assure the project’s success.” Councilman Jim Owens wrote to Haynie wanting more details, saying that he feared Haynie’s public comments about the idea gave the “appearance that we’re undermining an existing plan at the 11th hour.”

Owens and some other council members had been growing increasingly frustrated about being left out of discussions, insisting they were only learning of new developments on Facebook or in the media.

Haynie called Owens’ comments “quite unfortunate and inaccurate.” Still, no details of this potential new venture emerged.

***

Hurricane Florence struck the East Coast in September, the same week that Daniels was scheduled to speak to members of the Medal of Honor Society for the first time at their annual conference in Annapolis, Md. He was only supposed to be in town briefly but, due to the storm, stayed for two extra days.

During that time, he said, he heard new questions and concerns from medal recipients that made him look at the project differently. With the ultimate goal of building a nationally regarded museum, he said, he and other foundation board members were considering whether pivoting to another market would be the best way to get it done.

A little more than a week later, Daniels made the announcement: The Medal of Honor Museum Foundation was considering a national search. In comments to The Post and Courier, he referenced “headwinds” the foundation had faced from elected officials and others.

The statement caused some confusion among residents who assumed the town had officially denied a revised proposal from the museum. But aside from the January vote by the Planning Commission, the museum foundation hadn’t submitted any formal plans for approval.

Several days after Daniels’ announcement, Haynie called a private meeting at Town Hall, with himself the only representative from the town. Tommy McQueeney and Susan Marlowe of the Patriots Point Development Authority were invited, along with Livingston. Daniels brought along two staffers.

The parties staked out their respective positions, with Livingston telling Daniels he should have “manned up and discussed this with the mayor” before announcing plans to leave. The bottom line, Daniels said, was that “after six years of failure, one logical answer is to try somewhere else,” according to minutes from the proceeding.

In the end, nothing changed.

When confronted by council members about the meeting, Haynie told them he felt pressure, as mayor, to take charge of the situation. He then suggested a way to get around open meeting laws if they wanted to take the discussion further.

“It might be a good idea,” he wrote to Town Council, “if there are further questions, for us to meet in groups of less than a quorum and discuss the road ahead, perhaps with General Livingston, as he will play a major role in helping Mount Pleasant actually get the museum built here.”

***

Notes to town officials about the museum had been arriving in council members’ inboxes for months, and they came in at a faster clip after Daniels’s announcement.

Some applauded the town for sticking to its guns, but many more were critical. One resident bemoaned the “unfathomable hostility by a small minority of Mt. Pleasant town leaders towards the Medal of Honor Museum.” Another criticized the “old guard” that threatened a “once in a lifetime opportunity for our city.” Another wrote, “I cannot believe the town of MP has treated our veterans in this disgraceful manner!!” One even declared that losing the Medal of Honor Museum would “be a mistake that will haunt this town forever.”

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(Left to right) Major General James Livingston (Ret.) and Ray Chandler unveil an early rendering of the proposed site of the new Medal of Honor Museum at Patriots Point. File/Brad Nettles

The foundation announced on Oct. 5 that the museum board had officially authorized a national search. Councilman Santos told his colleagues in an email that the search was “unfortunate” but the foundation was at least keeping the town in the running for the museum.

Fellow Councilman O’Rourke scoffed at that: “We are NOT in the hunt. We are out.”

The situation remained in limbo for about two months as a critical deadline came and went for reaching an agreement on moving Patriots Point Road.

The missed Nov. 30 deadline opened the door for either the foundation or Patriots Point to walk away from their lease. In December, Patriots Point decided to do just that, essentially bringing the project to a halt.

“It was a rocky marriage from the beginning,” Burdette said, “and it got worse as time went along.”

***

Daniels maintains that the main motivation for looking elsewhere was feedback from recipients and a desire to reach a larger market. The back-and-forth about the design and the pace of progress, however, “gave us the time to come to a different decision” about the project’s future, he said.

Charleston regularly beats out larger destinations on “best of” travel lists, but in terms of scale, the tourists who flock to the area represent a fraction of those who visit some of the cities on the museum foundation’s new shortlist.

In 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, almost 7 million people visited the Charleston area. Among others under consideration for the museum, New York City saw more than 65 million visitors last year; San Diego, about 36 million. Denver, another prospect, says it brings in more than 31 million — about 17.4 million of them stay overnight — and Dallas most recently reported around 27 million.

And though the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation’s origins were inextricably linked to the Lowcountry, more than six years later, it had become a completely different body. Since Daniels took over as CEO, every board member has changed but one. None reside in South Carolina.

Daniels said he can’t be happier with the foundation’s search for a new home, though he declined to discuss specifics of that process. His group has returned the $5 million it received from the state of South Carolina, but he said he still hopes the town and Patriots Point can build something to commemorate the Medal of Honor.

“Let’s turn the page,” Daniels said.

In many ways, Patriots Point also has moved on. Earlier this month, its officials celebrated passing the master plan for Patriots Annex, a deal with local business owner and hotelier Michael Bennett for 30 acres of new development, including multiple hotels, retail and an amphitheater. Chandler called the deal “historical” and “fantastic.”

The Medal of Honor Society, made up of recipients, continues to have a presence on the Yorktown and recently announced plans to add another staff member there. They’re also exploring options for updating or expanding the existing Medal of Honor Museum on the ship, Chandler said.

“The Medal of Honor is about the stories,” Chandler said. “We’re already telling those stories on the Yorktown, but we can tell more.”

It’s unclear what ideas the town might have for assisting in that goal, or whether a public-private partnership may still be in the cards, but Haynie says the town's support for a Medal of Honor Museum, or other center or program devoted to the medal, still stands. 

"I do not see the town’s commitment changing if there is a viable effort to construct such," Haynie recently said over email. "The organization undertaking the project may change, but the honorees remain the same, and the town’s commitment is to honoring them." 

Others remained disappointed and more than a little confused as to how the dream of building the museum here got so far off track.

“I’m still dumbfounded by it,” said Town Councilman Kevin Cunnane, who believes Mount Pleasant has lost all hope of landing the museum.

Former Mayor Linda Page said that would be a disappointing outcome given how much support there was from the community.

Though blame can be parceled out, she said, the end result is the same: “The town of Mount Pleasant, as a majority, wanted this, and we don’t have it now.”

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.