Downtown beautification project honors local war heroes
After more than two years of fundraising and site work, the Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) and the City of Somerset officially opened Somerset Veterans Memorial Park Wednesday.
A first-of-its-kind effort downtown that honors local veterans and their service to the community, the park is located at the corner of Oak and Main streets in an area that was once blighted and the source of significant drainage challenges during periods of heavy rain. The City of Somerset purchased, cleared and now maintains the property, and SPEDA has spent the last two years raising money for park construction through its non-profit foundation.
What resulted is the green space local, state and national leaders christened Wednesday, which features a Veterans Wall of Honor, and bricks, placards and structures that pay tribute to local veterans who achieved success through their service. Somerset Veterans Memorial Park is flanked by patriotic murals on the offices of Kinetic by Windstream and Lake Cumberland Recovery, making the entire area a celebration of the American way of life and the men and women who protect it.
Underneath the park, a stormwater retention system works to drain flood waters during heavy rains. It has already provided significant flood relief this year, said Chris Girdler, SPEDA president and CEO.
Girdler said he and SPEDA Chief Accounting Officer Jessica Carlton have been honored to oversee a project that plays so many important roles in the community.
“This has been a very exciting project to undertake,” Girdler said. “SPEDA formed the SPEDA Community Foundation specifically for projects of this type. Not only are we able to honor our veterans that make all we do in America possible, but we were also able to beautify downtown as well as help to eliminate a source of constant downtown flooding. I commend Mayor (Alan) Keck and the Somerset City Council for their vision to create this park and for allowing SPEDA to undertake its construction. Today we officially turn it over to the city for its continued oversight and maintenance. Collaboration and innovation are the keys to our community’s success and this endeavor reflects that and more.”
In addition to the presentation of colors and a 21-gun salute, Wednesday’s grand opening included remarks from Congressman Hal Rogers, U.S. Representative for the 5th District of Kentucky; Somerset Mayor Alan Keck; First & Farmers National Bank President and CEO Terry Pugh; and Horse Soldier Bourbon President Scott Neil.
Horse Soldier Bourbon, which has committed to building a $200 million distillery experience in Somerset, has played a unique role in the veterans’ park project from its inception to today’s grand opening. The story of this company and its founders — members of the first U.S. Army Special Forces unit to enter Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — inspired Keck and Girdler to utilize this space to honor local war heroes. The project was announced in 2020 during a Whiskey & War Stories luncheon honoring Horse Soldier’s founders. Money generated from luncheon ticket sales went toward the effort, in addition to funds raised during an auction at an accompanying private event.
Since that time, the SPEDA Community Foundation has raised money for the project in a number of ways, including a 22-Push-Up Challenge that raised awareness about veteran suicide rates and through engraved bricks and placards at the park that could be purchased in honor of a loved one.
Neil — a member of the hand-selected detachment of 12 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group, later named the Horse Soldiers, who entered Afghanistan on horseback in the weeks following 9/11 — congratulated the Somerset-Pulaski County community for supporting this project and underscored the importance of honoring military veterans.
“I am proud and humbled by the support for veterans and the generosity of the Somerset and Pulaski community with the dedication of the Veteran’s Park Memorial,” Neil said. “It is important for everyone to honor those sacrifices and serves as a reminder of the need for the next generation to serve our country and her call to service.”
First & Farmers National Bank was one of the first businesses in the community to pledge support for this project, committing to be the park’s title sponsor. The park’s star attraction will be a military tank set atop a platform that has already been constructed at the front of the park. The platform features emblems from all branches of military service and the First & Farmers logo.
“First & Farmers would like to thank SPEDA for this opportunity to show both our respect and our gratitude to local veterans,” Pugh said. “We look forward to seeing this beautiful park used as a place to reflect on those who lost their lives in service to our country and a place to celebrate the freedoms that our military continues to protect.”
Congressman Rogers, who hails from Somerset and is a six-year veteran of the Army National Guard, praised this community-wide effort to honor servicemen and women in such a prominent way.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to our military veterans, and this memorial park is both an honorable salute and a lasting tribute to our local heroes. This new park, along with Somerset’s state-of-the-art VA Clinic, is another sign of the committed partnerships that we have here in Somerset to work together for the benefit of our community and especially our veterans,” Rogers said. “We are especially honored to have former U.S. Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Scott Neil here to celebrate the grand opening of the Somerset Veterans Memorial Park. He led one of the most dangerous missions against the Taliban on horseback in the hill country of Afghanistan over 20 years ago and returned home to invest in American communities like Somerset – a true patriot and American hero who continues to make this nation proud.”
Keck thanked Neil and the Horse Soldier team for inspiring him and the people of Somerset-Pulaski County in the ways they have — through their economic investment, their military service, and their core values of family, faith and community. And he expressed his gratitude to SPEDA and all of the businesses and individuals who contributed to making this vision a reality.
“This park represents everything the Horse Soldiers, and all of our military veterans, have served to protect,” Keck said. “I am so grateful to each and every person who has supported our vision of bringing downtown Somerset back to life through projects like these. Thank you for believing in what this community can be. And thank you, veterans, for protecting our freedom to have big dreams. May we always remember how lucky we are to be a part of the greatest social experiment of all time, and may we always give thanks to those who make it possible.”