Closed Cracker Barrel eyed for shooting memorial

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three years ago Wednesday, Laurie Smith lost two family members the night a part-time Uber driver went on a random shooting rampage in metro Kalamazoo.

“I don’t know that it’s ever going to get easier,” Smith, her voice breaking, said on the third anniversary of the shootings.

“I heard that it does, but it hasn’t yet,” she continued. “So I just try to focus on, ‘What can I do to give back to people?’ Because that’s where I feel any ounce of joy, is when I focus on giving back to others.”

Smith heads up the ForeverStrong Memorial Foundation, which is working to build a tribute to victims of the shooting spree that killed six people and wounded two, as well as the five bicyclists who were hit and killed by a high driver several months later.

“There were two really horrible tragedies, and we all came together, we were there for each other, and we just want to carry on those legacies,” Smith said.

On Feb. 20, 2016, her husband Rich and son Tyler were killed as they checked out vehicles at a car dealership in Kalamazoo. Four others — Judy Brown, Barbara Hawthorne, Mary Jo Nye and Mary Lou Nye — died later in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel restaurant on South 9th Street off I-94 in Texas Township.

When the restaurant closed permanently last fall after a salmonella outbreak, Smith said ForeverStrong board members came up with the idea of trying to put the memorial there.

“We think it would be just a perfect spot to put it because more than half of the people who lost their lives that night, it was at the Cracker Barrel,” Smith said.

Smith also likes the high visibility of the location, which you can easily from I-94.

“People passing by Kalamazoo would be able to see the (symbol of) strength, and that’s what this is all about, showing strength, fostering strength, fostering hope, carrying on the legacies and never forgetting,” she said.

The multimillion-dollar memorial would feature several unique sections, including walking paths, concrete panels paying tribute to each victim, a playground and picnic area and a memorial pavilion.

>>Online: ForeverStrong website | Facebook

But a Cracker Barrel corporate official told Smith Wednesday that it will not be the permanent owner of the location and therefore cannot donate the property to foundation. The Tennessee-based restaurant chain did say it will make a financial donation to the organization.

Smith said she’s grateful for the financial gift. She is not, however, giving up on putting the memorial at the site.

She told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday afternoon that she plans to find and contact the ultimate owner of the property to talk about the possibility of locating the memorial there.

Statement from Cracker Barrel spokeswoman Janella Escobar:

“We continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic events that took place in Kalamazoo 3 years ago today. The families and friends of the victims remain in our thoughts and prayers as this close-knit community continues to heal.

“While we wish we could offer a physical space to the individuals impacted by this senseless act of violence, we will not be the permanent owners of this location. However, we have reached out to the ForeverStrong Memorial Foundation to make a donation to help them in their mission. Additionally, we provided the Battle Creek Community Foundation’s Help Now! Fund with a $10,000 donation immediately following the shootings, and we have continued to support their work by giving a second donation of $10,000 this past December. This fund was established to provide financial assistance to the victims and their families, as well as community counseling in the aftermath of the tragic events. It is our hope that these donations will help the community’s continued healing.”

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