Cape Coral military museum finds new home at Edison Mall, just six weeks after closing

Six weeks after closing in Cape Coral, the Southwest Florida Military Museum has a new home that could bring a whole new audience to the 11-year-old attraction.

They just had to cross the Caloosahatchee River to find it.

The museum expects to open soon at Edison Mall in Fort Myers. And for the first time in months, founder and CEO Ralph Santillo says he feels hopeful about the future.

“We were pretty down for a while, not knowing exactly what we were gonna do,” Santillo says. “That was killing me. What are we going to do with all this stuff?”

Then mall managers read a News-Press article on the museum closing and called Santillo. They offered the mall’s former Disney Store at a discounted rent.

“They said they wanted to help,” Santillo says. “Of course, I said, ‘Yeah!’”

Previous coverage: Cape Coral military museum to close Wednesday; new homes needed for artifacts, veterans services

Ralph Santillo, founder and CEO of the Southwest Florida Military Museum is close to completing the relocation process for the museum as it has found a new home at the former Disney store at Edison Mall.

They’re not the only ones who’ve offered help, either.

The Collier County Fair donated a bus so the museum can start bringing rolling exhibits to local schools again. And several VFW and American Legion halls have allowed the museum to set up satellite displays, ensuring that even more people can see its military artifacts from every American war.

 “People stepped up to the plate,” Santillo says. “‘And they said, ‘We’d like to help you, and we’d like to help you survive.’”

Brad Lunn, the mall’s general manager, said offering the space to the museum was a way to make a meaningful difference in Southwest Florida.

“This was a part of history that was kind of going away,” Lunn says. “We had the space, and it’s a great cause. And together we were able to get it done.”

“It was the right thing to do to work with them, and we’re just very happy that they’re here.”

Collier County Fair board members also saw the museum’s news coverage and decided to donate their bus, a former bloodmobile. The museum’s mission goes well with the fair’s previous “Salute to Heroes” theme, which included soldiers and war veterans, says fair manager Rhonda Ward.

“We have some military vets on our board and some have family members that are in the military,” Ward says. “So we definitely felt the need to jump in and help out.”

The Cape Coral museum closed Sept. 30 after a financial dispute with its former business partner, which owns the building and had wanted the museum to pay $5,000-$8,000 in rent. Before then, the museum hadn’t paid rent at all.

At about 5,000-square-foot, the former Disney Store has about a quarter of the space as the Cape Coral location, an old Sweetbay grocery store just off Cape Coral Parkway.

The Southwest Florida Military Museum has found a new home and will be opening soon at the former Disney store at Edison Mall.

But Santillo says they’ve made it work. The tight quarters forced them to cherry-pick the best artifacts.

“We tried to keep the things that would catch people’s eye,” he says.

Santillo gave The News-Press a tour of the new museum and pointed out some of its key exhibits from World Wars I and II, the Revolutionary War, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Cold War and more.

There’s a World War II Hotchkiss airplane machine gun. A life-sized display showing a Vietnam War prisoner in a bamboo cage. A window display featuring Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. A 1938 German motorcycle driven by uniformed mannequin (which Santillo plans to put outside the store to attract people’s attention).

Then there are the museum’s many murals, flags, model aircraft and a vast collection of military uniforms, helmets and weapons, including swords, pistols, rifles and even a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher.

 “These are all originals,” Santillo says. “There are no replicas here. This is all original stuff.”

The museum will also continue offering services to military veterans, but not at the mall location. Santillo expects to sign a lease soon on a small space in downtown Cape Coral.

Cape Coral resident Kurt Hansen, a Vietnam Navy veteran, helps organize some of the military memorabilia stored at the newly relocated Southwest Florida Military Museum. The museum has found a new home and will be opening soon at the former Disney store at Edison Mall.

Dozens of local military veterans visited the Cape museum every week for free services, he says, including counseling, job-search assistance and loans. Those services are run through the museum-affiliated organization Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation-Florida.

The new, approximately 1,000-square-foot location will allow those services to continue.

“I’m enthused about that,” Santillo says. “We were concerned we would lose the veterans. That’s how we started.”

Santillo isn’t sure if Edison Mall will be a permanent home for the museum. It remains to be seen if it can attract the same amount of visitors as the Cape location, which saw about 24,000 people a year for veterans services or its collection of memorabilia and displays.

They’ll test out the Disney Store for six months to a year and see if it works, he says. If it does, they’ll stay. If not, they’ll look for another home elsewhere.

But signs are looking good, including mall visitors who keep seeing the museum’s window displays and peeking their heads inside to ask when the place will open.

Model battle ships decorate the walls at the newly relocated Southwest Florida Military Museum. The museum has found a new home and will be opening soon at the former Disney store at Edison Mall.

The new location — along with the satellite displays at local VFWs and American Legion posts — could bring the museum’s exhibits to a bigger audience than ever before. That includes people from Fort Myers who otherwise never would have visited the Cape Coral spot.

That’s good news for Santillo, who wants to educate people about America’s wars and the people who fought and often died to protect our country and its interests.

The more people who learn about that, the better.

“These are areas that we were never able to reach out to,” Santillo says. “So this is going to be good for us.”

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)

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