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If you build it, will they come?
That’s the billion-dollar question raised since the founder of Wreaths Across America, in Columbia Falls, recently announced plans to construct a 2,500-acre park nearby — including the world’s tallest flagpole — to honor U.S. military veterans.
Flagpole of Freedom Park would include memorial walls inscribed with 24 million veterans’ names, six “halls of history” with educational exhibits, a tourism and retail center with a 4,000-seat music venue, and the namesake structure, 1,461 feet tall.
“That’s a big pole,” said the park project's leader, Morrill Worcester, at the launch announcement. "We started out thinking it would be 200 feet, but that was 13 years ago."
Worcester's business began laying its Maine-made wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery in 1992 and later turned that patriotic donation into one of Maine's best-known nonprofits, Wreaths Across America.
Now Worcester and sons Mike and Rob say they're inspired by the same patriotism to build the park. It would occupy forestland owned by the family in Centerville, an unincorporated township in Washington County, about 15 miles west of Machias. The Worcesters estimate construction costs would total a jaw-dropping $1 billion.
Perhaps even more startling, the Worcesters and the for-profit company they’ve set up plan to raise the entire amount privately, including through the offer of lifetime passes to the park in exchange for "founders donations." Much of the park would offer free admission, but supporters chipping in at least $660 would receive VIP access and other perks.
The Worcesters estimate that 60% of the construction spending will be in Maine. Since the announcement, they’ve also released detailed projections of the park’s economic impact, including creation of thousands of jobs in Maine and millions of dollars in wages and tax revenues. Here's a breakdown.
Already expressing support for the project are business leaders including Dana Connors, Maine State Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, who said, "The direct and indirect economic impact will be significant, particularly as Maine looks to expand year-round tourism opportunities and build Maine’s workforce.”
Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron agreed, saying, “Something of this scale should bring many good-paying jobs to the region.”
According to the organizers, Flagpole of Freedom Park's first phase is scheduled to be complete by July 4, 2026, the 250th birthday of the United States.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the park plans, however.
On social media and elsewhere, some people have criticized the project as a for-profit venture and said the money could be better used to serve veterans.
In response, Rob Worcester told Mainebiz that the project’s bottom-line approach will free the Freedom Park to partner with veterans organizations and ultimately benefit them.
“A 501(c)(3) is a much narrower model. We don’t really fit that mold,” he said. “We have to be [economically] sustainable, but we really want to share a large portion of the profits with veterans groups. We’re creating an opportunity for them.”
Morrill Worcester said the individual donations — which are payable on an installment plan, he noted — are “designed to get as many people involved as possible.
“This is for the whole of the United States. We want to inform generations to come. Beyond that, we just have to pay the bills.”
At the launch event for the project, Tricia Thurston, who served in the Navy and is now the officer of Americanism for Maine’s American Legion, praised the park’s purpose: to guarantee no veteran is ever forgotten.
“It puts Maine on the map as one of the most veteran-rich states in America,” she said.
But she also expressed caution, saying, “This project is so impressive, it seems impossible.”
There are lots of reasons to think such an undertaking truly is impossible.
The price tag, which represents all-in costs over 10 years of development, is daunting. (In comparison, though, a Michigan company sells a prefabricated 180-foot-tall flagpole for $70,500. Observation decks aren't included.)
Flagpole of Freedom Park won’t disclose how its fundraising is going so far, but has promised to return pledges if the organization can’t raise 25% of the capital.
Then there are the logistical challenges of constructing such a massive structure, for human use, in the middle of a forest.
There are miles of red tape involved, including local zoning and building approvals, state environmental review, and requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration for illuminating a structure so high.
The Worcesters have even discussed the possibility of annexing their 2,500 acres of land from Centerville to Columbia Falls, in order to help expedite the zoning process.
Also challenging, even if Maine weren’t in the midst of a historic labor shortage: filling the thousands of jobs in rural Washington County, population 31,000.
The Worcesters have said they might need to create housing for all those workers, many of whom would be employed year-round.
Morrill Worcester believes all those obstacles can be overcome. He noted that while the project is currently in the planning and pre-construction phase, a team of 60 engineers, architects, planners and other professionals have already been working on it for several years.
Worcester is used to new types of undertakings. When he started Worcester Wreath Co. in 1983, it was the first such mail-order supplier in the country, and today is one of the largest employers in Washington County.
“We're convinced," he told Mainebiz, "this is going to happen."