Proposed Vietnam War Museum Struggles For Community Buy-In

A South Vietnamese Army veteran at the groundbreaking for a memorial for a 13th century Vietnamese general, Tran Hung Dao. Garden Grove councilman Phat Bui is now president of the organization that raised the money to build the memorial statue, which is located in Hanoi Plaza in Westminster. Photo by Thy Vo.

A South Vietnamese Army veteran at the groundbreaking for a memorial for a 13th century Vietnamese general, Tran Hung Dao. Garden Grove councilman Phat Bui is now president of the organization that raised the money to build the memorial statue, which is located in Hanoi Plaza in Westminster. Photo by Thy Vo.

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It’s been a source of frustration for the all-volunteer board of the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, an independent nonprofit heavily subsidized by the city of Garden Grove: everyone loves their idea for a museum along Harbor Boulevard, but so far, few people want to pitch in the money for it.

With just $63,000 in the bank toward the foundation’s $22 million fundraising goal, last month Councilman Phat Bui called on fellow council members to reassess the city’s financial commitment to the project or consider abandoning it altogether.

But at a city council subcommittee meeting Monday night, members of the museum foundation hashed out concerns of residents and council members, including the apparent lack of community support, and urged patience, saying building a successful museum can be a slow process.

The city contributes an estimated $125,000 to the foundation annually, plus a $157,973 annual debt payment for a building on Harbor Boulevard, which wasn’t slated for a museum when it was purchased in 2011, but has since become the de facto location for the project.

Seen by many as the pet project of former Mayor Bruce Broadwater, residents have expressed concern about city staff time and general fund dollars going toward the foundation, which to date has just $63,000. to its name.

The city council, now headed by a new mayor, is also among the foundation’s skeptics.

Now with a $1.56 million balloon payment due on the property in December 2016, Councilman Chris Phan echoed the concerns of many residents and fellow council members.

“I’d love to support this project,” Phan said at Monday’s meeting, “but it’s just so much money.”

Longtime resident Josh McIntosh criticized the city for buying a property and pouring so much time into the project without a formal agreement with the foundation.

“The city has other needs. We kind of jumped the gun by buying that property — investing all this money, and now we have nothing to show for it,” McIntosh said.

Maureen Blackmun, a resident and president of the Garden Grove Neighborhood Association, questioned the lack of interest from the Vietnamese community in the project, as evidenced by feeble turnout for the meeting.

Including McIntosh and Blackmun, only three residents were in attendance.

No Vietnamese Americans were at the subcommittee meeting, including former Garden Grove councilwoman Dina Nguyen, who sits on the foundation’s board and is now on the board of directors of the Orange County Water District.

“Where’s Dina [Nguyen] and the people on the board, and where’s the Vietnamese community that piles into the chamber when there’s a Riverside issue?” Blackmun said, pointing to a recent controversy over a sister city relationship between Riverside and the South Vietnamese city of Can Tho, that spilled into the Garden Grove council chambers.

“I think it’d be a gem for us, but can we afford it?”

Phan also asked why there hasn’t been a larger response from Orange County’s Vietnamese American community, where there is no shortage of philanthropy and fundraising year-round, including efforts to commemorate Vietnamese history and the Vietnam War.

Councilman Bui, for example, was recently selected as chair of the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, and helped spearhead the group’s fundraising efforts to build a six foot stone statue of a 13th century Vietnamese general in Westminster.

The groundbreaking for that project — which happened ahead of the November election — drew a robust crowd of city council members from both Garden Grove and Westminster, candidates running for office, South Vietnamese veterans and other community leaders.

They raised $100,000 for the statue in just three or four weeks, Bui said.

“To be honest, I don’t know whether the foundation really engaged the Vietnamese community,” said Bui, who said the foundation has not contacted him or the group’s past chairs. “But no matter how worthwhile the project, the board is really the one that has to move it — and so far I don’t really see an effort at all.”

Louis Carlson, the museum foundation’s treasurer, and Peter Katz, the acting president, say they’re not sure why Vietnamese American residents haven’t been more involved.

Katz says there has been an outpouring of support among American veterans of the War, including high attendance at events hosted by the foundation.

“It was like pulling teeth to get Vietnamese people to come and listen to other Vietnamese people speak,” said Katz, referring to a speaker series fundraiser that featured views from both American veterans and Vietnamese refugees. “With American veterans, we fill the room.”

Katz said that with so many different views and experiences with the Vietnam War, and conflict within the Vietnamese American community, it’s hard to bring everyone together behind the museum.

“To some extent, the community, unless it’s a Vietnamese American idea, they don’t want to do it.” Phan said. “I think because it was a Broadwater-created project…it never [got buy-in] in the first place.

“We should have gotten community involvement first. But here we are.”

Katz said it isn’t too late to get people — including wealthy donors — on board, and urged patience. Once built, he says, the museum would be another reason for tourists from Anaheim’s Disney Resort to drive into Garden Grove.

“There is money here, this is the third wealthiest county in the country. There’s no reason we can’t raise the money,” he said.

Carlson also addressed criticism of the group’s spending, including a fundraiser and banquet in 2011 that spent $10,371 more than it raised.

Paying for consultants and architects for the project is expensive, as is renting tables and facilities to put on events, Carlson said.

“By the time it was all finished, we may have lost money but we felt like we had established ourselves in the community and made our name,” Carlson said. “We felt it was a valid expense.”

Carlson pointed to the need to professionalize the foundation’s board by requiring a yearly financial contribution and mandatory attendance at meetings and events.

According to city staff, a 2010 city-financed feasibility study recommended the foundation hire a full-time staff person to manage the project and expand the board to as many as 50 people to increase their network of wealthy contacts.

So far, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and former Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, both Democrats, have agreed to join the foundation’s board as honorary members, said Community Services Director Kim Huy.

But reaching the foundation’s $22 million fundraising goal is short of impossible without a more robust and involved board and paid full-time staff, Huy said.

Even then, Huy said the foundation would need to mount a 10-to-15-year capital campaign to raise all the money.

Katz urged council members not to abandon the idea altogether.

“Let’s not throw the baby out of the bathwater just because it was a Broadwater idea,” Katz said. “The idea was sound, maybe you [scale it down] … and maybe we won’t see it in our lifetime. But there’s no museum anywhere in the world like this outside of Hanoi.”

California Court of Appeals Associate Justice Eileen Moore, an honorary board member who served as a combat nurse in Vietnam, said she that while doesn’t know much about local politics, but once built, she knows the museum would resonate with many.

“We walked out of there supposedly as those who were defeated…but look around us today, here in Orange County. The two cultures have bonded in a really beautiful and successful way. We walked out supposedly into defeat but right into the winner’s circle,” Moore said.

For both the Americans who served in the Vietnam War and those who fought for the former Republic of South Vietnam, now is the time to do something, said Moore.

“So that years on, as these two cultures marry and work together, they know how we met and how this wonderful result has taken place,” she said.

The subcommittee’s next meeting is scheduled for July 27.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.