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Updated: Military Museum announces closure date

By CJ HADDAD - | Sep 24, 2020

A local portal to the military history of the United States will close next week, barring a last-minute miracle.

Saying operations have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cape Coral’s Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library will to close to the public on the final day of September and be out of its large-scale location on Leonard Street at the end of November, according to Ralph Santillo, Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation and museum CEO and founder.

The museum and foundation would have to come up with $1.8 million to buy the building outright, something they had been hoping to do over the last few years. The museum could also opt to spend $80,000 to continue to occupy the location until June, but without a plan in place to buy outright down the line, museum officials felt it would a poor economic decision.

The building is currently under control by Patriot Housing Group, LLC. The two parties have tentatively agreed on an arrangement that would see the museum relocate and, in the process, receive $50,000 from Patriot Housing Group as a gesture of good faith and a step towards finding a new home.

“We’re at the wire. It was a hard decision to make,” Santillo said. “We can’t keep fighting the battle, and to stay in this building without knowing we could buy it; it just doesn’t make sense for us to do it. It’s getting more difficult every month to meet our expenses.”

The museum has occupied its current building primarily rent-free in the three years Patriot Housing Group has controlled the building. Museum expenses include a large utilities bill and an eight-person payroll, according to Santillo.

Secretary of the Board and attorney for Patriot Housing Group, Chris Walker, said the LLC owns the building, which has a $13,000 a month mortgage, and has contributed $300,000 to the building over the three years.

“On behalf of Patriot Services Group, we are disappointed in the financial realities facing the Southwest Florida Military Museum,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, Patriot Services is no longer able to financially support the museum due to its own cash constraints. We wish the museum nothing but best wishes and prayers and hope it is able to find a more financially and economically viable location to share the history the museum contains with the residents and visitors of Cape Coral.”

Despite the current outlook, museum officials have always had a sliver of optimism for the endeavor, which has been in existence for more than a decade.

Santillo hope this veteran-rich community can help keep open the doors that double as a gateway to our country’s past.

“We’re always looking for that miracle to walk through that door,’ he said. “We never give up on that. I’m hoping somebody’s out there that throws us a life preserver.”

The museum’s staple event — its Tuesday Veterans Luncheon — brings together various local veterans and organizations, and is often a highlight of the week for attendees.

“It was a sad day that we had to tell everyone that next week is the last luncheon,” Santillo said. “I figured out that in all of these years, we’ve had 550 Tuesday lunches. It’s heartbreaking. It’s pretty sad. We’re trying to figure out what our next move is.”

Perhaps the most important function of the museum lies in The Veterans Foundation, which is run by Santillo and operates out of the museum. They say they assist an average of 800 veterans each year by providing essential services that they require. The foundation equips local vets with PTSD counseling, obtaining military records, transportation, bus passes, gas cards, food distribution, career counseling, job placements, free legal advice and other areas that need attention that are not provided by Veterans Affairs, according to Santillo who hopes to continue to lend a hand to his fellow comrades.

“The foundation has been helping local veterans for all of these years and those guys and gals rely on us, so we have to keep that intact and look for a location that we could at leave move the foundation to temporarily,” he said.

Santillo said the museum has donated some artifacts to a new veteran-based facility and resource center being constructed on Del Prado Boulevard in connection with the Gunterberg Charitable Foundation. What is left over will, hopefully, be placed in storage and the museum will try to reach out to those who donated over the years to see if they would like to reclaim it.

They are still crossing their fingers that a temporary location can be found to which they can move some of their collection. If agreed upon, they plan to use the $50,000 from the building owners to help find a new home.

“We’d like to continue the museum to a degree,” Santillo said. “We’re hoping to find a temporary location for that, too, and we can move some of our artifacts there that we don’t put in storage and at least keep us alive. We’re all veterans and we’ve been taught never to give up. So, we don’t give up until they put the shovel in the ground.”

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library also has been a center for local veterans to gather among their peers and have access to the resources they need.

The museum has been recognized as an asset to the area, having spearheaded Cape Coral being designated as a Purple Heart City, piloted the veteran banners you see along Cape Coral Parkway and has educated the youth of the region and beyond.

“There will never be another facility like we have here,” Santillo said. “It’s almost impossible to duplicate. And I’ll tell you, there were a lot of sad people and sad faces here on Tuesday.”

Florida is home to the third highest veteran population in the United States, and Cape Coral’s military museum is rich with history and walls that will tell tales of yesterday.

Stepping into the museum is like stepping into a time machine. Relics of past battles, uniforms, flags, and depictions of war time canvas the facility.

The museum features a Purple Heart Exhibit, highlighting Florida’s 360 Purple Heart recipients who died in action since Sept. 11, 2001. Other exhibits accentuate the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

The museum relies on fundraisers and events to stay afloat. With COVID-19 putting an end to any gatherings of people, Santillo and his staff have not able to generate any money via those crucial functions.

Members of the public with storage space available or a facility to rent can reach Santillo at 239-910-5699 or at ralph.santillo@veterans-foundation.org.

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library is at 4820 Leonard St. Visit swflmm.org for more information.

– Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj