King memorial compromise is no change

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(Host) The Barre granite industry isn’t happy that the sculpture of Martin Luther King will be made from Chinese stone.

Adding insult to injury, Vermont stone carvers learned that a Chinese artist would create the monument.

Then last week the Vermont congressional delegation declared a partial victory …. half of the project would involve domestic granite, possibly some from Vermont.

But the foundation in charge of the memorial says that was the plan all along.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Barre likes to call itself the granite center of the world. So the city’s stone carvers were outraged when they learned that the King memorial planned for Washington, D.C. had been outsourced to a Chinese artist.

The artists in Barre said they never got a chance to bid on the prestigious, $100 million project.

Barre will eventually get a chance to bid, but not on the 30 foot statue of King himself.

The Vermont congressional delegation announced last week that they had won assurances from the foundation to have at least 51 percent of the material for the project come from the U.S.

Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders, who met with the foundation officials in Washington.

(Sanders) "We are going to lose good paying jobs in this country and grow the trade deficit with China by importing Chinese granite. And I think there was an element of embarrassment on the foundation there in seeing so many people opposed to that. And hopefully that is what changed their minds."

(Dillon) But the foundation has promised for months that at least half the granite will come from the U.S. They made the same commitment in comments last month to the news media in Vermont.

(Johnson) "There was no new announcement. I think somebody just took it out of context."

(Dillon) Harry Johnson is president of the King Memorial Foundation.

(Johnson) "The bottom line is we’ve always committed that only a percentage of the granite is going to be coming from China."

(Dillon) Johnson said the centerpiece of the project – a 30 foot likeness of Martin Luther King – is still being produced in China by master artist Lei Yi Xin. He said Lei has already done a substantial amount of work on the sculpture.

(Johnson) "Of the statue itself, very little will be done by domestic.. However, other granite work on the memorial, fabrication and other things will occur by U.S. hands."

(Dillon) John Castaldo is executive director of the Barre Granite Association. He says Barre stone carvers are some of the best in the world. And he said they still should get a chance to sculpt the statute honoring King.

(Castaldo) "I don’t think a whole lot has changed. Maybe they went from 49 percent to 51 percent but I think, you know, I’m just afraid, that’s to give a positive spin as far as the public goes."

(Dillon) Castaldo says local companies have been hurt by low-cost granite memorials from China. So he says the King project going to China was another blow.

(Castaldo) "It should be done here, in the United States. This to me is just the continuing outsourcing of our jobs, our livelihoods and the work our people could do."

(Dillon) Harry Johnson from the King Foundation says Vermont companies – and others in the U.S. – will get a chance to bid once the design team finishes its plans for the memorial.

But Vermont granite workers say that means they’ll be able to bid on the granite walkways and structural parts of the project, but not the sculpture itself.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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