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Keith Hardison is the director of the Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Museum.
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Medal of Honor center

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The past year was marked by milestones for organizers of Chattanooga's planned heritage center to honor Medal of Honor recipients, including surpassing significant financial benchmarks and hiring a new director.

Still, project leaders say the events of 2018 will pale in comparison as the center begins construction this month, initiates the next phase of its capital campaign and unveils a new name and interior design.

"We have finally made it happen," said Maj. Gen. Bill Raines, chairman of the Heritage Center. "We are now going to be able to honor the valor of medal recipients, teach about their character and appreciate how this hard work is going to pay big dividends for our community."

The Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center will be a 19,000-square-foot, $6 million facility honoring the 3,522 recipients of the nation's highest award for individual valor in the military, with a specific interest in the 32 Medal of Honor recipients from Tennessee. The first 52 medals awarded by the United States were earned in the Civil War's Chattanooga campaign from 1862-1864.

The center will be housed in the old visitors center in Aquarium Plaza and is expected to open in February 2020, Raines said.

At the helm will be Keith Hardison, a 35-year museum professional who grew up in Nashville and fell in love with the Civil War history of Chattanooga as a youth.

And for the next 13 months, Hardison will oversee the opening of the center, which has been talked about in Hamilton County since 1986, something he said will be "the next significant cultural and historical attraction" in the tri-state region.

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The current Medal of Honor Heritage Center is housed in 900 square feet inside Northgate Mall, and the collection of medals resides among biographies and artifacts from the 32 Tennesseans who have received the Medal of Honor.

This history will move to the new center where it will join 14 permanent exhibits. But the path from Hixson to downtown Chattanooga has been difficult.

In February 2016, the group announced Coolidge Park as the future home of the museum with the blessing of the Coolidge family.

The move was quickly met with opposition.

Critics focused on the impact of green space when two acres across from the Chattanooga Theater Center were designated for the two-story, 4,400-square-foot museum in the popular park, which opened in 1999.

By June 2016, Hamilton County government and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency had approved the project despite growing opposition and two public meetings, but the City Council balked; by an Aug. 3 public meeting, the dialogue now included the proposed architecture and "the scent of warfare into a place that had always represented the opposite," as Times Free Press columnist David Cook wrote on Aug. 6.

Retreating but undeterred, the center's leadership in August 2016 formed a special ad hoc committee to develop a consensus recommendation for the museum. The committee reviewed 13 sites and recommended the former visitors center in January 2017. The River City Co. property was the site of the failed, $11 million relocation effort by the Chattanooga History Center, and it was not available at the time the Heritage Center chose Coolidge Park for the museum.

"It was hard times in trying to put the facility at Coolidge Park," said Raines, a longtime Chattanooga businessman and chairman of the Heritage Center. "We thought we knew, but I felt we had to listen to the community. By doing so, we ended up accomplishing our mission in a whole bigger way."

The battle of Coolidge Park resolved, museum organizers ended five months of lease negotiations with a goal to raise $1 million by the end of 2017 and an additional $2 million in 2018 before River City would sign a long-term lease. River City, the nonprofit organization that has directed downtown development since it was created in 1986 — the same year as the discussion began about a Medal of Honor Museum — is the landlord of the property in Aquarium Plaza owned by both the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

"River City gave us four months to raise a million bucks," Raines said. "We went public and the first people we went to were veterans. The first 500 donations were from veterans or in honor of veterans."

"I think it made them better," said Kim White, president and chief executive officer of River City. "We knew why the history center didn't work out. We were tough, but I think it was fair."

"I agree," Raines said. "It made us focus like a laser beam."

The center raised $1.2 million in 2017 and $3.1 million in 2018 before signing a 50-year lease with River City that renews every 10 years. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger have committed $250,000 each into their 2019 budgets to match the state's $500,000 contribution, according to Heritage Center officials. The $6 million total budget includes a $1 million endowment built into the business plan designed as a contingency for operations and source for future exhibit upgrades.

The endowment reduces the actual museum cost to $5 million.

With funding and a new home secured, Raines knew it was time to find a professional to finish, open and run the museum.

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Raines first called on Hardison in the summer of 2018 as a consultant charged with writing the operations plan for the museum, which would accompany a business plan written by two professors at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business.

The plan said the museum would be sustainable long term with an attendance average of more than 66,800 annually. It projected 23,380 new visitors annually and an estimated economic impact of more than $7 million per year. Along with managing a capital campaign to reach the River City requirements, Raines chose Hardison from among three candidates to be the executive director of the museum.

"I suddenly realized that I did not know what I didn't know about opening a museum," Raines said. "Keith had been there before and done what we needed, and I knew he could get us to the next level. I really feel like we got the right man for the job."

Now Hardison arrives to finish a process that has overcome two significant obstacles over the past three years. He's the final piece Raines needed for the Heritage Center.

Hardison, 63, has developed, built and opened two museums in his career. His largest project came during the six years he spent in Louisiana from 2000-2006. Stationed for the first three years in Baton Rouge, Hardison managed the design, construction and opening of the Capitol Park Museum. It was a five-year, $25 million, 69,000-square-foot project that chronicles the historical and cultural heritage of the state.

Hardison took on more duties with the Louisiana State Museum in 2003 and relocated to New Orleans, but he still maintained responsibility for the Capitol Park Museum project. The museum was in its final stages when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, leaving a path of devastation across the Gulf Coast and causing catastrophic flooding in New Orleans. More than 1,800 were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

For several weeks after the storm, Hardison stopped being a museum professional as he and his staff became humanitarians by housing displaced residents in the museum space. Then a month later came Hurricane Rita. Soon, it became unclear whether the Capitol Park Museum would be able to open.

"After Katrina, we had to make a decision whether we going to put it on hold or go forward," Hardison said. But they moved ahead, and in 2006 the museum opened.

"We said, 'This hurricane, as horrendous as it is, is not going to ruin us.' The city of Baton Rouge and state of Louisiana needed a beacon to say, "We are going forward. It was used as a symbol of the rebirth of Louisiana that we opened on time and within the budget."

His most recent work has been in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he served for 12 years as director for the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. In that role, he directed the operation of 23 historic sites, including 250 buildings on more than 3,300 acres.

But it was his six years in Louisiana that most resemble the task he will face in Chattanooga, and he considers it a homecoming of sorts.

"Having run museums, built museums from the ground up, having renovated museums and having implemented major programming, I think this is a perfect opportunity for me," Hardison said.

His love of the Scenic City and its Civil War history go back to his childhood. And it shows when he talks about the museum.

"I was not raised in Chattanooga but, in a way, I was raised on Chattanooga," said Hardison, who grew up in Nashville. "I got the history bug early. I got it from teachers, not my family. We frequently made trips to Atlanta, and I always negotiated a stop on Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge or Chickamauga.

"The entirety of Chattanooga is a historic site. It's the ultimate trifecta in terms of interpreting history because it will show what was done, where it was done and how it was done. This project is more than just a museum, because you can walk out the door of it and see where some of these incredible acts of heroism took place. If you want to know where ground zero is for the Medal of Honor in the United States, we are sitting in it. This heritage will help make the museum a national attraction."

On a recent day in Boynton Park, he reflected on the changes the city has undergone in recent decades.

"I was amazed at the progress of the entire community. There are historical amenities and cultural amenities, and they tugged at both my heart and my head," Hardison said. "This is a homecoming to Tennessee for me."

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Hardison's passion for the programming and design of the exhibits stems from learning about history in school.

It translates into an aggressive attitude toward not only talking about character development but using the stories of heroes to reach students about six character traits: courage, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity and citizenship.

"In terms of education in America overall, we do a poor job of teaching and applying history and it is getting worse, not better," Hardison said. "There is a shocking lack of knowledge about our history and about our system of government."

He said younger demographics believe museums are "just old stuff in a case over there and [have] nothing to do with what is going on" or the "community's attic." But he believes the center's approach will be effective, because the stories of the Medal of Honor are compelling.

He said the museum will focus its programming toward reaching student-age visitors and their families through special events, galleries and displays.

A gallery of 1,000 square feet will change multiple times teach year, and he said the programming will take full advantage of available digital platforms.

"We are teaching students facts and information," Hardison said. "We are not teaching them how to live. That is what the stories we tell in the museum will do."

Heritage Center officials say 14 permanent displays will feature life-size dioramas and use innovative technologies to create an interactive and immersive experience that visitors can embrace in learning the events on the days each medal was earned. Hardison said the combination of artifacts and stories of "ordinary people doing extraordinary things" will teach history and character through museum theater.

"Visiting the museum, you may see Linda Mines, a trustee, doing a re-enactment of Dr. Mary Walker," he said of the only female recipient of the medal. "On another day, you could literally run into Arthur MacArthur, who went up Missionary Ridge and is the father of Douglas MacArthur. He will engage your personally or be making a presentation. The museum comes alive that way." The MacArthurs are one of only two father-son combinations to receive the medal.

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Hardison and Raines believe the heritage center will, over time, become the nationally recognized location honoring the Medal of Honor. Both foresee an even closer relationship with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and anticipate developing relationships with the families of all Medal of Honor recipients.

That was the motivation for the center's trustees making the change in the name.

The center is named for Charles H. Coolidge, a Signal Mountain resident who is the second oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, for his heroism in World War II.

And now, with the blessing of the Coolidge family, heritage center trustees have approved adding "national" to the name of the museum. A new logo will be unveiled along with the approved design for the 14 exhibits at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 17 at the new facility.

"I wholeheartedly endorsed the use of 'national' because our name now reinforces that we are telling a national story with strong local connections," Hardison said. "That is as it should be."

After only a few months of residency, Hardison is confident Chattanooga will be his permanent home, even if the heritage center is his last project. He and his wife, Angela, have rented an apartment downtown so he can be near the construction site. After that, they plan to find a more permanent residence.

"It may be my last stop," Hardison said. "And, if it were, I would be completely happy because I intend to make this community my permanent home. This is a community which has a rich and varied history and is getting better all the time."

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.

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