PUNTA GORDA — Gary Butler tried to take in the joyful socializing happening all around him in the crowded lobby.
The executive director of the Military Heritage Museum couldn’t stop smiling.
“I think we might have set some kind of attendance record for ribbon cuttings,” he said, clearly overwhelmed by the community’s response to the event.
Upwards of 200 people stopped by the museum’s new digs at 900 W. Marion Ave. on Monday evening to celebrate the move from Fishermen’s Village to a 17,000-square-foot, multi-level facility in the IMPAC building, a former business training center purchased by Fishermen’s Village in 2017. The museum is the first tenant of the complex.
“It’s not often you get to see a vision come alive,” Butler said. “It’s been a wonderful journey. I’m excited for the community.”
A few minutes earlier, a 95-year-old Marine Corps veteran of World War II, Harriett “Ty” Moulds of Fort Myers, had cut the ribbon on the new facility, which was scheduled to open its doors at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“This is a milestone in the museum’s ongoing fulfillment of its mission,” Marilyn Smith-Mooney, longtime board president, told those gathered for the ceremony.
Smith-Mooney is in her second incarnation as board president, originally stepping into the role in 2007, when the museum first leased the facility at the entrance of Fishermen’s Village, a popular dining and boutique shopping destination in Punta Gorda.
The museum was housed from 2001 to 2004 in an 850-square-foot unit toward the foot of Fishermen’s Village. For three years, it occupied a storefront in a shopping center on Madrid Boulevard in Burnt Store Isles.
About 67,000 visitors a year stopped in at the old location. Organizers are hoping that number rises.
“This,” Smith-Mooney told the crowd, “is also the fulfillment of the vision I have had to have a building of our own.”
Since 2007, the museum had been housed in one large room at the entrance to Fishermen’s Village. It also occupied a second floor, using it as a conference center. Artifacts and exhibits were crammed into that one ground-level space. Sometimes the artifacts — even the special ones — got lost in the crowd.
The new facility is five times the size of the old one.
“There’s no comparison,” said board member Sam Harris. “This is a totally different concept. This is not walk in, look around and walk out.”
The move included transporting more than 20,000 artifacts, 4,000 literary titles and more than 1,000 documents — not to mention refurbishing two floors of the IMPAC building to create six galleries, a gift shop, and a reception area. The 247-seat theater also needed sprucing up.
“I was on the board three years ago when we were talking about this,” said Kathleen Roth, an Army veteran, former board member and consultant who oversaw the move as well as the design of the galleries and exhibits. “Some of us have been working on this for almost three years.
“It’s wonderful to see a vision come to fruition. More important, this museum is absolutely going to honor veterans in a way they need to be honored.”
“Over there,” she said, nodding toward the old facility down the street, “we did our best. But it’s in a place like this that you can really honor the veterans for their service, their courage, their heroism.
“We’re a heritage museum, not a history museum, and I think we’re doing it right.”