Building a memorial falls to Bloomberg

Published October 8, 2006

NEW YORK - The final truckloads of rubble had just left the World Trade Center site in the spring of 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg foretold the difficulties ahead for the process of building a memorial to the victims of the terror attack.

The former CEO, in public office barely six months, told a group of business leaders he couldn't envision the end result. "I can tell you the process, however," Bloomberg said. "The process is everybody yelling and screaming for a number of years and then somebody taking charge and just doing it."

He was remarkably right. Amid all the shouting - some directed at him - the mayor himself is taking over the memorial's multimillion-dollar foundation, where board members hope his philanthropic credentials and star power will breathe life into lethargic fundraising.

That surprised many people because of his awkward history with the memorial and victims' families.

His predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, had suggested when he left office that the entire site should be made into a "soaring, monumental" memorial.

Bloomberg, however, was focused on stabilizing the city's shaky post-Sept. 11 economy, and the pragmatic billionaire could not support giving up 16 acres of prime downtown Manhattan real estate. He came across as business-oriented and harsh.

Victims' relatives were angered when he said downtown residents wouldn't want to live next to a "cemetery." Many were already unhappy because at the start of his term Bloomberg did not attend every firefighter's funeral as Giuliani had done, although he quickly changed his ways.

Bloomberg's opponents also say he lacks compassion for rescue workers sickened by toxic trade center debris.

Christy Ferer, who lost her husband on Sept. 11 and serves as Bloomberg's liaison to the families, says the public dramatically misunderstands him. "He is an amazing, philanthropic guy, but that doesn't mean he's warm and fuzzy, and sometimes people can potentially misread that," she said.

The mayor lost friends on Sept. 11 and endured his own grief early in life, but rarely mentions either. His father, who had a weak heart, died during Bloomberg's junior year in college. The mayor, who wears his father's watch as a remembrance, donates hundreds of millions to medical research.

Many say this is how he deals with adversity, by focusing on what can be changed rather than dwelling on the past.

He has also given $10-million to the memorial foundation. As its chairman, the Republican mayor will likely tap his business connections and wealthy friends for more donations to the project, which is expected to cost more than $700-million. Nearly $145-million has been raised. Construction on the memorial has begun and officials hope to finish in 2009 - Bloomberg's last year in office.