From Mlive.com | By: Andrew Dodson
When Keith Markstrom formed the Bay Veterans Foundation in 2015, he had big dreams of opening a building where veterans could meet for camaraderie, obtain counseling and support, and receive some basic training in wood working and construction techniques.
The goal would be to get enough vets trained and put them to work in the community.
Before that project could became a reality, though, Markstrom needed to prove his group was serious. So, in a little over two years, they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring Battery Park back to life and installed a monument there honoring Gold Star Families, the first of its kind in Michigan. They also launched a Veterans Support Group held monthly at the Dow Bay Area Family Y.
"We needed to establish a track record and I think we did that in a short period of time," Markstrom said. "I think people now see us as a credible organization."
Now, it's time to get to work. Again.
Markstom and the Bay Veterans Foundation officially kicks off its capital campaign for the activity center on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the State Theatre with its Red White and Brew Revue, a night of music by singer-songwriters Jennifer Naegele, Laurie Spear, Sarah Schingeck and Amanda Jane Beson. The event, which kicks off at 7 p.m., is focused on recognizing women veterans.
Tickets for the general public are $15. Male veterans pay $5; women veterans get in for free. After the concert, a social gathering is being held at Tri-City Brewing Co., 4170 Shrestha Drive. A $1 from every pint sold is being donated toward the veterans center.
Bay County is home to about 8,400 veterans, according to the U.S. Census' five-year rolling average from 2011 to 2015, which makes up about 10 percent of the adult population. Of those veterans, 52 percent are 65 or older; 6 percent are 18 to 34. Bay County has one of the highest amount of veterans per capita in the entire state.
The activity center won't feature a bar, like the various service organizations across Bay City. And it won't just be a place where veterans come for a cup of coffee and tell old war stories.
Markstrom describes it as a "makers space," where there will be shop equipment, hand tools and table-top CNC machines.
"They're going to learn not just how to use a handsaw or a hammer," he said. "We want to introduce them to something they would never take on themselves."
Markstrom's vision for the center snowballs as he continues to describe it.
Once a handful of veterans are trained, he said, he wants to see them fix up homes that are owned by the Bay County Land Bank and ready them for sale.
"We could have this amazing synergy that's helping our veterans and helping our community," he said.
The foundation is looking for a building between 5,000- and 6,000-square-feet. The group has already received some in-kind donations of tools, but estimates it's going to need about $150,000 to acquire a building, secure insurance and make necessary renovations.
Bay County Executive Jim Barcia said he's in favor of creating a new Department of Veterans Affairs at the county, which could provide funds for the veterans center.
"I think it's a great opportunity to utilize the talents of many of our veterans," Barcia said. "Some of these guys may be retired skilled tradesmen, others may need to acquire new skills to enter the job market. It seems like a perfect way to support our veterans in Bay County."
Markstrom doesn't see the veterans center as a replacement for other veteran services offered throughout the county. The Bay County Veteran's Affairs office, for instance, provides information, referrals and support services for honorably discharged veterans and their families and aims to help those people walk through the red tape of benefits. And the Soldier's and Sailors Relief Commission provides emergency assistance to veterans and their eligible dependents.
"We're not replacing those services, but we want to be a connector for all of these things," he said. "We also have a lot of nonprofits locally that content they have veterans program, but it's hard to know how much is in their budget or what they're really doing. If we can help provide a more efficient use of their dollars, that would be a really great thing."
The foundation also anticipates securing funding to pay a manager for the center who would coordinate programs.
To date, Markstrom said he has received a $1,000 check for the center from Goodwill and has verbal pledges from other businesses.