Hamilton County Commission to consider $400,000 donation to Medal of Honor exhibits

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Larry Taylor rides in the parade, seated next to his wife Toni and Sergeant Dave Hill in the front seat. The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County and Chattanooga Area Veterans Council held a “Welcome Home” parade for Medal of Honor recipient Larry Taylor of Signal Mountain in September.

The Hamilton County Commission is set to consider Wednesday using $400,000 in taxpayer dollars to go toward two Medal of Honor exhibits, one of which would be for recent medal recipient Larry Taylor, of Signal Mountain.

In September, Taylor was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Joe Biden at a ceremony at the White House. In Vietnam 55 years ago, Taylor rescued four U.S. soldiers under fire while flying his attack helicopter.

If the commission approves the resolution, the county would give $200,000 toward the exhibits immediately. The remaining $200,000 would be given at the beginning of the next fiscal year, which would start in the summer of 2024.

The money would go to the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, a nonprofit organization that is seeking to fund and display exhibits at the downtown Chattanooga center.

(READ MORE: Signal Mountain veteran helping other vets, and himself, at TVA)

The funding would come from $1.7 million of hotel-motel tax revenue that was withheld from the Chattanooga Tourism Co., County Mayor Weston Wamp said during Wednesday's County Commission meeting.

"This is a unique opportunity," Wamp said. "It gives this body an opportunity to signal the gratitude our community has for Capt. Taylor, his service to our country and to immortalize that story and legacy."

When Wamp moved to withhold the funding from the agency that promotes area tourism, he said it would be spent on enhancing recreational opportunities.

This isn't the only funding from the $1.7 million that the commission has considered.

Following the fatal shooting of businessman Chris Wright in downtown Chattanooga in September, the commission unanimously voted to use $180,000 of that withheld money to go toward downtown safety.

Aside from the county's potential donation, Vince Butler, director of major gifts at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, said in a phone interview the city of Chattanooga will consider giving $400,000 as a part of the city's budget process next year.

Butler said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly is fully committed to the city donating toward the exhibits.

Taylor's exhibit, which would be his helicopter model hanging from the ceiling in the heritage center, will cost approximately $1 million, Butler said.

Butler said the center has asked Bell Flight, the manufacturer of the helicopter model, to donate the remaining costs of the exhibit.

"We hope to have an answer soon that they've approved it," Butler said.

The center hopes to have the Taylor exhibit finished by the end of 2024.

"Larry Taylor is 82. I don't know how much longer we're going to have him with us," Butler said. "My goal is to have the exhibit open up while Larry Taylor is still here to see it."

The other exhibit would commemorate Super Six-four, one of the Black Hawk helicopters shot down in 1993 in Somalia. During the rescue mission, Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon died while rescuing the downed helicopter pilots.

The sergeants, who were under a unit stationed at Kentucky and Tennessee's Fort Campbell, were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

"It is a Tennessee story that I think needs to be told somewhere in this country," Butler said. "No better place to tell this story than Chattanooga, Tennessee."

The approximate cost of the Black Hawk exhibit is $2 million, Butler said.

To fund that, the center has approached the state of Tennessee to donate $1 million. A local donor, who Butler said cannot be yet named, has committed to donate an additional $1 million.

At last week's meeting, Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said he approves the idea of the county donating toward the exhibits but wanted to know what happens if the project doesn't materialize.

"The concern that I would have about this is that we give this money away to obviously a very worthy cause, one that I think is productive in our community in multiple ways, but then the project doesn't happen for whatever reasons," Sharpe said. "What happens at that point in time?"

In response, Wamp said that's why the mayor's office decided to split the donation into two installments.

"Half now, the other half coming at the beginning of the next fiscal year," Wamp said. "It gives eight months for the county to assess the momentum of the project."

Wamp also said he wants the county to commit to the project to honor Taylor's legacy.

"I wanted them to know that there wasn't a speculative commitment from Hamilton County or from local bodies," Wamp said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga veteran had 'no animosity' toward Japanese people during stint in Japan after WWII)

Butler said Taylor's exhibit is the top priority of the two.

"That is priority No. 1 for us because that's a Chattanooga hero," Butler said. "It is something that needs to happen."

According to the center's latest publicly available tax documents, from 2021, the center received $65,500 in government grants that year. The center's assets were over $4.9 million, and it reported revenue of nearly $1.4 million.

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Larry Taylor of Signal Mountain waves to the crowd at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center during "Welcome Home" ceremonies for him after he was awarded the medal by President Jospeh Biden in September.