PUNCHBOWL (Hawaii News Now) - A $20-million project to expand the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is now six months behind schedule, but the new director said that the delay doesn't mean that the cemetery will run out of space for interments.
"They did not have any bidders that were competitive or that could come anywhere close to the price of what the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) was trying to build this or take on this project for," explained cemetery director Jim Horton.
The plan includes the construction of an administration building and information center just outside the gates. The cemetery should have enough space for interments until the summer of 2016, according to Horton. The two-year project also involves tearing down the current administrative office and putting in more than 7,000 columbarium niches. The contract has been broken up into smaller pieces in the hopes of starting construction as early as mid-July.
"We haven't run into a point where we're concerned yet about the slippage of the project," said Horton.
Horton, a former Air Force fighter pilot, took the job in March. Another issue he inherited is veterans groups complaining that they weren't informed that up to 100 in-ground grave sites were available. The cemetery has been considered at-capacity for such burials for years.
"Based on the smaller numbers, the national-level decision was to let the local funeral directors know and essentially let word of mouth carry out," said Horton. "There's always going to be a difference of opinion on what should or could have been done."
Some families are also concerned about all the unidentified remains at Punchbowl. Roughly 800 of them from the Korean War are in Section U. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's mission is to identify the unknowns.
"They have to go through a very legal, very rigorous process of getting permission to disinter, and they only do that after they've got a fairly high probability with the information," Horton said.
Now that he is running one of the state's top visitor attractions, Horton said that he is trying to balance the interest with the cemetery's primary mission of caring for veterans and their families.
"The sense you get, the humbleness that comes upon you when you walk onto this property is amazing," Horton said.
The cemetery is the final resting place for 55,093 people.