On Wednesday, the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library in Cape Coral closed its doors. Its founders hope that they can now find an alternative site to house the museum’s collection of military artifacts – which has grown over the years – and to keep servicing veterans.
The building that until September 30 housed the museum was a former Sweetbay grocery store at 4820 Leonard St. in Cape Coral, FL. The museum had moved into the former grocery store in 2012.
In 2017, the museum had purchased the property with the assistance of “Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation.” But the partnership fell apart and now the museum’s former partner has sold the building.
The building’s new owners wanted the museum to pay rent of $5,000 per month which was to increase to $8,000 in 2021. Up until recently, the museum had paid no rent. The alternative was to buy the building, which went on sale for $2.1 million dollars a few months ago and just recently sold for $1.8 million. The owners had bought out the museum’s lease and had given them two months’ free rent and a $50,000 bonus once the sale of the building has completed.
The museum has 60 days to vacate the premises and remove all of its artifacts. But for the founder and CEO of the museum, Ralph Santillo, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
“It’s just the end of the road,” Ralph Santillo said to the Cape Coral News-Press. “That’s it.”
The museum, which is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, now operates under a different business name.
The museum is visited by approximately 24,000 people each year. It first opened in a modest 1,300-square-foot space in Cape Coral. But as its exhibit collection — which included artifacts from every one of America’s conflicts — kept growing so did the museum’s need for more space. It now has 32,000 square feet of exhibits, including some beautifully painted murals from local artists.
The museum was the largest military museum in Southwest Florida and was consistently ranked as one of the top three things “to-do” in Cape Coral by Trip Advisor. But it has been hit hard, like countless small businesses, by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now Santillo and his board of directors are trying to decide what’s next for the museum. They are considering loaning out the museum’s military artifacts to other museums in nearby Naples or Punta Gorda or to veterans groups such as American Legion or VFW posts. Another option is restarting the popular museum bus with traveling exhibits. The bus used to visit schools in Lee County before breaking down. There are currently plans to purchase a new bus with the cash coming from the sale of the building.
Besides the museum, what worries the directors is finding a small office space to continue the veterans’ services run by “Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation-Florida.” Each week, they provide dozens of veterans with counseling services. These include helping vets in the long process of getting their medical, financial, and educational benefits. They also have an Addiction Counselor on staff who has helped hundreds of veterans who face drug, alcohol, and emotional problems. Additionally, they assist in job searches and provide free lunches to veterans every Tuesday.
Unless a rich benefactor or corporation steps up to the plate very soon, a precious resource could be lost forever. And the clock is ticking.