PUNTA GORDA — If not for shows and other public events at its Gulf Theater auditorium, the Military Heritage Museum of Punta Gorda might not have pulled through coronavirus.

“No question having these shows — that have been sold out in the theater — have been a huge benefit to the museum,” said Gary Butler, museum executive director, at a recent City Council meeting.

“Quite frankly,” Butler continued, “if we weren’t successful in December 2019, and January and February of this year — before COVID-19 happened — I would not be here because we would not still be an entity; I can guarantee you that.”

Currently, ATA Fishville — landlord of the museum’s home at 900 W. Marion Ave. — is working with the city to amend the building’s zoning restrictions to allow for public events at the 240-seat theater.

At the meeting, parking was a concern for some area residents.

“The city and the owner/developer have consistently ignored their obligation to provide adequate parking for the uses on the site,” Craig Ivey wrote in an email to the city.

ATA Fishville representative Patti Allen said they have options beyond the museum’s parking lot, including lots at Fishermen’s Village, and additional grass parking at the museum and on land the company purchased adjacent to the museum.

“We are happy to communicate with the museum and Gary (Butler) is very good at communicating with us so that (parking) does not become a problem in the community,” Allen said.

The City Council approved the first reading of the amendment at its Oct. 22 meeting but it still has to come back for final approval at the Nov. 4. meeting.

SURVIVING THE SHUTDOWNS

Up until now, the theater was zoned for private events only; however, museum runners had opened it up to the public.

“Fortunately, the museum was granted permission (by the City Council) to implement its theater-based programs as long as this amendment was approved by October 2020.” Butler told the Sun.

Due to ticket sales, coupled with donations and other funding sources, the nonprofit managed to stay afloat over the last five months since reopening.

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library in Cape Coral, however, wasn’t as fortunate. They closed their doors for good at the end of September.

“COVID-19 has had a major negative impact on the museum sector and we are doing everything we can to ensure we get through this,” Butler said. “Unfortunately, funding solutions from governmental, and public and private foundations, are far and few for our sector.”


FINANCIAL RELIEF FUNDING

Despite multiple attempts, the museum was unable to get any coronavirus financial relief funding through Charlotte County’s CARES Act program.

“In cases of denial, the reason is typically that the applicant doesn’t meet the criteria,” said County Communications Manager Brian Gleason.

Some local nonprofits such as the Sky Family YMCA, Senior Friendship Centers, Charlotte Behavioral Health Care and others were able to obtain funding through the CARES program.

Gleason said the CARES Act funding through Human Services is different than applications from non-service providers like the museum, which goes through the county’s Economic Development Office.

“The eight nonprofits that were funded through Human Services with CARES Act funds provide health and human services for the county,” Gleason said. “These organizations were able to apply due to increased demand in programs and services due to COVID-19.”

REOPENING THE MUSEUM

Although they were permitted to open in May, Butler said they held off until June to take the time to prepare for the months to come.

“We were positioned better because we took the time, prior to opening, to develop a comprehensive business plan,” Butler said. “This plan included the creation of a diverse portfolio of revenue streams including charging an admission, theater ticket sales, rentals, business sponsorships, fundraising and expanded gift shop.”

During the past year, Butler said the theater has evolved to become more of a venue for the community.

“We open it up to many other nonprofits and community organizations to use,” Butler said. “In addition to our daily museum-related events ceremonies and programs; its has been quite rewarding to see students on field trips use it, the local YMCA day camp, Sea Cadets and ROTC, veteran organizations, the local homeowners association and we even hosted a service-dog graduation a few weeks back.”

The museum has also added a school and summer day camp program called the History Academy, for which the Charlotte Community Foundation gave them a $15,000 grant for start-up funds.

“During the months of December 2019 through the end of February 2020, we were exceeding almost all of our revenue targets,” Butler said. “Many of our theater shows were at or close to sell-outs. We even had a very generous donation of $100,000 that enabled us to fully renovate the theater’s stage area, and replace the lighting and sound, among other upgrades.”

Butler said they are continuing to seek grants, holding fundraisers and operating the museum, which is currently open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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