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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / A Civil War exhibit is on display at the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. The museum tells the story of Medal of Honor recipients from the Civil War to the present day.

According to the calendar, the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is six months into its long-awaited move into prime downtown real estate near the Tennessee Aquarium.

According to the coronavirus, only three of those months may count.

"It's been a difficult time," said Jules Parker, director of development. "We had been open just three weeks when we had to close our doors to support [Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's] stay-at-home order."

The 19,000-square-foot Heritage Center debuted Feb. 22 with fanfare befitting both its mission and its place as the first downtown tourism draw since 2014, when High Point Climbing opened across Aquarium Way.

Ten Medal of Honor recipients and Pentagon brass were among the many dignitaries in attendance at the ribbon cutting. Gov. Bill Lee made remarks, and blue balloons and gold confetti rained down.

But that first burst of momentum was short-lived as pandemic fears shut down nonessential businesses in mid-March, putting Chattanooga's normally dynamic spring tourism season into a tailspin.

Last year, the local tourism industry brought in $1.16 billion in visitor spending, but fears of COVID-19 this spring sidelined tourist attractions, forced event cancellations and emptied hotels and restaurants. By April, travel spending in Tennessee was down 81%, said Barry White, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Company.

The Heritage Center was not alone in those difficult early days, but it did have the distinction of being the newcomer, barely a blip on a tourism scene in sharp decline.

"We were not a young organization, but we were a newly opened organization," Parker said of the center, which has been a project of local veterans and military historians since the 1980s and has had smaller collections housed elsewhere downtown and in Hixson. Center officials raised $4.3 million in 18 months, required by the River City Company to secure a long-term lease in the riverfront building it now occupies. Construction began in January 2019.

Expectations were high when the center debuted its collection of 6,000 items and offered special recognition to its namesake. Coolidge, a Signal Mountain native who turned 99 on Aug. 4, is one of two living World War II recipients of the medal, the U.S. military's highest recognition for valor in combat. His is among countless stories told in the center, which commemorates the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients from the Civil War to the present day.

Going dark for more than three months, three weeks in, was a rough initiation. All of the center's introductory programming was canceled, including dozens of field trips meant to expose area schoolchildren to the character traits embodied by the medal and its recipients, part of the facility's core mission.

"I had 636 students supposed to come in March, April and May," said Hannah Sher, director of education. "All were canceled. And that's just the ones that were scheduled [at the time]. There would have been more."

Staff members were sent home during the lock-down, but Parker said there was plenty of work still going on. "We were meeting hard on Zoom and Teams," she said.

They realized that if those videoconferencing platforms could work for staff meetings, they could also work for outreach, even after the center reopened.

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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Steven Thomas, director of program support for the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, stands ready to greet visitors dressed as a World War II soldier in May, when the center reopened after a three-month lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"We've entirely pivoted to virtual education," Sher said.

They're recruiting living historians to take part in virtual history lessons. Living historians from as far away as France have expressed an interest.

"It doesn't matter where they're from" when they're participating virtually, Parker said. "We're hoping to have a historian that reflects each period of conflict."

Steven Thomas, director of program support, has led the charge, pitching a pup tent in his backyard, dressing in uniform and telling stories of heroes of World War II as students watch virtually.

"I've been doing living history for 20 years now," he said. "Before the pandemic, I would volunteer my time to go into a classroom and do this with all my stuff at hand. The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate, but telling the story is very important. Our center is based around the story part of history."

The center reopened Memorial Day weekend, limiting visitation to 25% of capacity to ensure social distancing. Summer camps and programming for the city's Youth & Family Development Centers were canceled. Fundraising events have been postponed or re-imagined. The only live event on the calendar is a clay shoot on Oct. 1 in Benton, Tennessee.

The museum's signature event, the Celebration of Valor Luncheon, has been reset from Aug. 25 at the Chattanooga Convention Center to noon Oct. 6 online. It will be presented without charge in the hopes of widening the audience and expanding support.

Learn more at mohhc.org or visit 2 W. Aquarium Way.

Email Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com.

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