Truck load after truck load of dirt – about 22,856 cubic yards –were hauled and dumped nearly five years ago on a 7-acre site near Gilbert Civic Center that was to be the home for a proposed veterans memorial park.
Operation Welcome Home touted that a scaled-down version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. and an education and resource center when it unveiled the plans in 2015.
But that project proved to be a pie in the sky when the nonprofit in 2019 announced it couldn’t raise the $3 million needed to build the park and shuttered its operation, prompting Town Council to sever its contract with the group and take back the land it had been leasing for $1 a year.
Gilbert and Operation Welcome Home partnered on the project with the town spending $1.6 million for off-site improvements such as parking lot and bus bay.
Since then, the piles of dirt have remained surrounded by a chain-link fence with blue tarp.
For Deron Ash, it has become blight in his Settler’s Point South neighborhood.
“Our neighborhood is tired of this longstanding eyesore,” said Ash, who passes by the site several times a day. “It’s also next to the Civic Center. It’s not like it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s right in the center of our community. “It just doesn’t look good for the neighborhood. They really need to do something with it.”
Town officials originally considered removing the excess dirt and converting the site back to its original desert landscaping at an estimated cost of $100,000.
But staff later said that price will be much higher after a surveyor found a lot more dirt on the site than was thought.
Instead of 4,000 cubic yards, it was roughly five and a half times that amount. The general contractor for the defunct project said at the time it equaled about 2,000 truckloads of fill dirt.
Gilbert considered offering the dirt to developers and contemplated – but never went through with – using the site as a temporary location to house its employees in portables during the extensive, ongoing renovation of the Town Hall building.
The 7-acre site is now planned for a family advocacy center that will provide services such as forensic interviews and medical exams for adult and children crime victims.
The police chief in a fall retreat 2021 told council that the original estimate for the planned 26,266-square-foot building had increased to about $24 million from $16.4 million on account of having to truck off the dirt at a cost of $700,000.
Town spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison last week said the budget for the project was still at $24 million but that the cost for removing the dirt hasn’t been determined yet.
“Some of the dirt will need to be hauled off the site,” Harrison said; “and the estimate cost will not be determined until the design is better defined for the project site.”
The Advocacy Center project is scheduled to begin design in fiscal year 2023 and construction in fiscal year 2025, according to Harrison.
Building the advocacy center will close a sordid chapter that remains murky as to how much money was actually raised and spent by Operation Welcome Home for the park.
The Operation Welcome Home program was formed in 2010 as a way to honor returning veterans with ceremonies and other activities by then-Council members Les Presmyk and Jenn Daniels, who later became mayor.
In 2014, Lisa Rigler, who created the now-defunct Gilbert Small Business Alliance partnered with town on the program and eventually took it to nonprofit status and became its president.
Under her leadership, the park took root and fundraising began with money coming from noted donors such as the Walmart Foundation, Sons of the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution.
A ground-breaking ceremony kicked off the project in spring 2016 at the site and was attended by over 500 people, including town officials, dignitaries and veterans.
The state Legislature even passed a resolution recognizing Operation Welcome Home for the veterans’ park, which was to debut on Veterans Day 2017.
Rigler in 2016 attested the organization had $1.2 million in cash and $600,000 in in-kind donations when she applied and received a $100,000 grant from Arizona Department of Veterans Affairs.
A year later, the organization’s accountant provided a bank statement to the Town showing $415,548 in cash and $679,747 in written commitments for in-kind donations, totaling $1.1 million as proof it met Gilbert’s threshold to get a permit and begin construction.
Rigler has never responded to GSN’s multiple requests to comment and the accountant at the time also remained tight-lipped.
Presmyk eventually quit the organization’s board for lack of transparency after he said he had asked Rigler and the accountant several times to see the books that were never produced and there also were no regular treasurer report.
The Gilbert Sun News has only been able to track a $284,487 check written to general contractor MT Builders, $66,123 for a building permit and $17,820 for a performance bond.
After the organization folded, Vice Mayor Aimee Yentes, who was the vice president for the nonprofit and is Rigler’s daughter, blamed broken promises of in-kind donations and the overall difficulty in competing with similar organizations chasing the same dollars.
She and her husband, Justin Yentes, who sat on the nonprofit’s board, declined to name the in-kind donors who backed out but all the donors that GSN contacted said they fulfilled their promises or were waiting to be called to provide the services.
Eventually all work stopped on the site in February 2018 after the general contractor said Operation Welcome Home failed to provide more funding for the project.
Development never advanced beyond the rough grading of the site, which was done pro bono.
In December 2020, Operation Welcome Home closed its books after handing back nearly $100,000 to donors.