| Fort Myers News-Press
After 11 years, the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library will close its doors Wednesday in Cape Coral.
“It’s just the end of the road,” said founder and CEO Ralph Santillo. “That’s it.”
The closure comes after a financial dispute with the museum’s former business partner, which owns the building and had wanted the museum to pay $5,000 a month in rent, which would go up to $8,000 next year. Until recently, the museum wasn’t required to pay rent at all.
The other option: Buy the building for $1.8 million — money the museum’s leaders say they don’t have.
Santillo and the museum’s board of directors tried raising the money earlier this year, but only received about $6,500 through a GoFundMe page and other donations.
“It was never enough to really make a dent,” Santillo said. “We had to really face reality that we’re throwing good money after bad that we don’t have.
“We had until June 2021 to raise $1.8 million. But we realized that, after 11 years, if we haven’t started to reach that, that’s not gonna happen.”
Read more: Cape Coral military museum could lose its home and the veterans services it runs there
Now Santillo and his board of directors are figuring out what’s next for the museum, including loaning out its military artifacts to other museums and restarting its popular museum bus with traveling exhibits.
“That would keep the museum in business, so to speak,” Santillo said.
Meanwhile, the Cape Coral Parkway building is in the process of being sold to a new owner, he says. The museum’s landlord recently bought out the museum’s lease in exchange for two months’ free rent and a $50,000 bonus once the place sells.
Santillo says he doesn’t know who’s buying the property.
“They wouldn’t disclose that to us,” he said. “They’ve been trying to sell the building for a while, and they finally came to us and said they have a buyer who’s willing to take it under contract.”
The building’s owner, Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. The museum operates under a slightly different name, Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation-Florida.
The Southwest Florida Military Museum first opened in 2009 in a 1,300-square-foot space in Cape Coral. It kept growing and eventually moved into its current building in 2012 — a former Sweetbay grocery store at 4820 Leonard St., just off Cape Coral Parkway.
The museum attracts about 24,000 people a year for veterans services or its collection of memorabilia and displays from every American war, Santillo said.
Vietnam veteran Neil O’Connor says he hates to see the place shut its doors. He’s been involved with it for years, including holding 9/11 memorial events there with local group The Southwest Florida 10-13 Club.
“We’ve been associated with them since the beginning,” the Cape resident said Tuesday as people starting gathering for the museum’s weekly veterans lunch. “It’s sad to see it go.”
O’Connor used to bring his daughters — now 21 and 23 years old — to the museum to learn about the country’s military history.
“This gives them a feeling of living history,” he said. “That’s very important. A lot of children come through here. They get an idea of what’s going on, what it’s taken for this country to be where we are.”
The museum boasts 32,000 square feet of military artifacts, including uniforms, weapons, photos, paintings and even a Jeep. It’s too expensive to put all those displays in storage, Santillo says, so now they’re trying to figure out what to do with them.
Plans include loaning the exhibits for “satellite displays” at local veterans groups such as American Legion, VFW and AMVETS, as well as to other military museums in Naples and Punta Gorda. They’ll also be giving items to a new, smaller Cape Coral veterans museum planned by the Gunterberg Charitable Foundation.
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Another option: Reviving the museum’s touring bus, which brought rotating exhibits to schools and elsewhere in Lee County. That stopped about 1½ years ago after the donated LeeTran bus broke down.
Santillo hopes to buy a new bus using the bonus from the sale of the building.
“We had a bus on the road for about three years,” Santillo said. “It got to be very popular.”
Santillo won’t discount the possibility of finding a new building for the museum and its exhibits, but he admits they might not be able to afford the rent. That’s why they’re focusing on the satellite displays and the museum bus.
“That way, we won’t have to worry about a big building,” he said. “The expense of a building, unless you have a money benefactor, there’s just not enough income coming in.”
Santillo hopes to find a small office in Cape Coral or Fort Myers for the museum’s veterans services, run by Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation-Florida. Dozens of local military veterans come to the museum every week for free services, he says, including counseling, job-search assistance, loans and free lunches every Tuesday.
“We can’t ignore that,” Santillo said. “The museum is our showplace, but the foundation actually does the work for the veterans. So we’ll continue to do that.”
Santillo admits it’s disheartening to close the doors on a place that he’d viewed as his legacy. “Every day gets harder, because I know it’s coming more to the end.”
Still, the next two months will be too busy to think about it much, he says. That work includes selling the museum’s furniture and kitchen equipment and finding homes for the exhibits.
“We’ve got 60 days to get out of here,” Santillo said. “We gotta get rid of stuff. We gotta pack up. … And we need to raise money to finish paying the bills here before we leave.
“We’ve got so much on our plate right now. We just need to take this next two months, clear out of here, get our head together and figure out what we want to do.”
The museum will be open for regular hours Wednesday and close for business at the end of the day. To learn more about the museum and foundation, visit or swflmm.org or facebook.com/swflmilitarymuseum.
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)