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Lakewood Ranch resident Gene Sweeney, left, and Heritage Harbour resident Tim Larson, of Salt of the Earth, can’t wait to break ground on the memorial next month.
East County Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012 5 years ago

Observed: Perseverance, passion yield patriotic results

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Lakewood Ranch resident Gene Sweeney is taking a lesson from Thomas Jefferson.

I’m taking mine from Sweeney.

If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward …

Over the last seven years in the East County, I’ve seen my share of brilliant ideas fizzle to an end or simply never find their spark. The biggest one that comes to mind is the Smart Farm at Lakewood Ranch, a community farm project that combined cooking and gardening demonstrations with community garden plots, aquaponics, a hen house and other features to form a sustainable farming operation. It was an amazing idea but never came to fruition.

But there have definitely been others — such as the brainchild of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO and President Rex Jensen, the Premier Sports Campus, and the annual Memorial Day parade started by Sweeney and Ed’s Tavern owner John Breiner — that have proven highly successful with time, and with dedication and persistence.

And, as I sat with Sweeney and his business colleague, Heritage Harbour resident Tim Larson, last week, I couldn’t help but think back to three years ago, when Sweeney originally envisioned erecting a memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers and civilians of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He and Breiner were sitting almost in this exact spot when Sweeney pitched the idea to his friend.

I followed the story for months.

“We were beginning to forget, and we can’t let that happen,” Sweeney said of why he has remained so committed to his project, dubbed the 9/11 Victims and Fallen Military Heroes Memorial. The memorial features a roughly 10-foot-tall, 14-inch thick steel artifact box beam from World Trade Center Tower 1 and pays tribute to victims of Sept. 11, whether first responders, civilians or military members who lost their lives in the war that followed the attacks.

A military veteran himself, Sweeney originally had had his heart set on a Lakewood Ranch location. He first asked SMR for permission to install the memorial in a circular patio area on Lakewood Ranch Main Street. Jensen, who supported the idea, instead offered a spot at what eventually became home to The Premier Sports Campus. At the time, no plans for the facility were finalized and Sweeney declined the offer.

He, instead, approached representatives of Lakewood Ranch Community Development District 2, which owns Lakewood Ranch Town Hall, about installing the memorial there. But the idea was voted down.

I didn’t hear much from Sweeney about the project after that, but I knew he still was working feverishly to find a home for his memorial.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen. But I did know Sweeney had a bulldog-like tenacity, an unmatched passion for the memorial and what it represents and plenty of perseverance.

He considered Emma Booker Elementary School, where President George W. Bush was visiting at the time of the attack, and several other locations, before getting approval in August for the memorial to be placed in Patriots Park in Venice. Fundraising efforts have been ongoing.

And, now, he and a team of supporters are raising the last bit of $68,000 needed to finance the project. Gulf Coast Gives pledged a matching grant of $34,000 by July 4. And, although Sweeney and his team are raising the final dollars for the project, it will also be the beneficiary of a Celebrity Bartending event from 6 to 9 p.m. June 21, at the Polo Grill and Bar, 10670 Boardwalk Loop, Lakewood Ranch.

Celebrity bartenders include Gold Coast Eagle Distributing owner Col. John Saputo, Florida Rep. Greg Steube, Sweeney, Larson, Breiner and several other patriots.

Larson, project manager, said construction will likely start in early July and last for about 60 days. The memorial will be dedicated on Sept. 11, 2012 — a day now known, appropriately, as Patriot Day.

The project, he and Sweeney said, truly has been a partnership between the community and supporters, whether individual donors or businesses who are offering their services for the cause.

Sweeney’s perseverance to the cause is commendable, as I don’t know too many people who would pursue a dream so diligently as he has these last few years. As Sweeney said laughing, “This has been a two-and-a-half-year overnight success. (The memorial) has found its place.”

I’m just glad there’s a happy ending.

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