There are groundbreaking ceremonies, and then there are groundbreaking ceremonies on steroids. For the USS Midway Museum and the Port of San Diego, their one-of-a-kind groundbreaking ceremony that launched the construction of Freedom Park at Navy Pier set a new standard for a project that will profoundly change the face of San Diego’s bayfront.

World War II veteran and Midway docent, Al Hansen, starts the ceremony with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Midway’s president and CEO, Terry Kraft and Port chairman, Frank Urtasun, were joined by the USS Midway Foundation president, Laura White, U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, and Navy Region Southwest chief of staff, Capt. Dwight Clemons for the ceremonial event on April 25 that kicked the construction of Freedom Park into high gear.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Frank Urtasun, who began serving as the chairman of the Port of San Diego in January 2024. “It’s going to be a monument to the men and women who have served our nation and have protected everything we hold so dear to our hearts.”

This multi-year joint project between Midway and the Port will transform Navy Pier into the largest veterans park on the West Coast. The California Coastal Commission unanimously approved the development and construction of the park in 2023. In February 2024, the Port’s Board of Commissioners approved an approximately $7.4 million contract with AMG Demolition and Environmental Services, Inc., for the demolition of the large headhouse building that sits at the entrance of the pier. The demolition is the first phase of making Freedom Park a reality.

The ceremonial groundbreaking is the official start of the construction of Freedom Park at Navy Pier. Photo by Clarisse Meyer

In the spirit of the demolition of the pier’s headhouse, the groundbreaking ceremony participants opted to use golden sledgehammers to “break” cinderblock pavers to officially launch the Freedom Park project.

“This park is designed to honor our military and to be welcoming to everyone – tourists, locals, families and veterans,” said Cong. Peters, who has represented California’s 50th congressional district since 2023. “It may have taken a while to get to this point, but it’s going to be something we’re really proud of.”

When completed, Freedom Park will be a tremendous enhancement of San Diego’s Embarcadero as a public destination on the waterfront, as well as an ongoing tribute to the men and women who have worn the uniform of our nation.

“Countless thousands of ships started their overseas journeys and deployments from this pier after being loaded and outfitted with supplies, weapons and personnel,” said Capt. Clemons, a naval flight officer who has served nearly 30 years in the U.S. Navy. “During times of war and peace, families said goodbye to their sailors, Marine Corps and Army soldiers as they departed San Diego, many of them deploying directly into harm’s way. It will be a great public space and a tribute to all of those who served our nation.”

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria makes remarks at the ceremony.

Beginning at the west end of Navy Pier and stretching around Midway to the Bob Hope Memorial, Freedom Park will celebrate the region’s rich military history and tell the story of everyday heroes who served our country and preserved our freedoms. A Footsteps of Freedom promenade, that will run along the entire north side of Navy Pier, will be dedicated to the service and sacrifice of those who are military veterans. The park will provide local San Diegans and out-of-town visitors with unique experiences on the waterfront with numerous public amenities, including a nature garden, memorials and monuments, seating and shaded areas, and interpretive signage. The park is anticipated to open in early 2028.

U.S. Rep. Scott Peters addresses the ceremony attendees. Photo by Clarisse Meyer

“This will be a crown jewel along our waterfront,” said Mayor Gloria, who was sworn in as San Diego’s 37th mayor in 2020. “It reflects who we are – a proud military town. When it’s a completed park, we’ll have the opportunity to remind people of the contribution of so many of our servicemembers, of the people who served their country selflessly and have left it a better place.”

The park will also include a statue paying tribute to Navy Chief Petty Officer John Finn, who was the first Medal of Honor recipient during World War II for his selfless and courageous actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1945.

“John would have been humbled and honored,” said John McAllister, the great nephew of John Finn. “But he would have also wondered why people are making such a big fuss about him as he would have said that there were others much more deserving.”

It’s estimated that Freedom Park will cost approximately $65 million. Currently, $29 million has been committed to the project from the Port, Midway and, with the support of Cong. Peters, through Community Project Funding distributed via the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. An additional $36 million will be raised by the USS Midway Foundation’s capital campaign committee.

“We are so proud to team with the Port of San Diego to form this public – private partnership that will deliver this park to honor all veterans,” said Terry Kraft, who became Midway’s CEO in March 2023. “The Midway Museum has already set aside more than $15 million to fully fund the first phase of this park. I believe this entire area will take on a new character and you will see Midway in all her glory. We will make San Diego and the Embarcadero the place to be.”

A 14-foot model of Freedom Park was unveiled during the ceremony.

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