LARGO — The Armed Forces Military Museum needs some more space. The museum has outgrown its 35,000-square-foot home on 34th Way N, off Ulmerton Road, and John J. Piazza Sr., the museum's president and founder, would like to expand onto a vacant adjacent property.
Piazza is not keen on the property's $1.6 million price tag, though, so he's looking elsewhere. The St. Petersburg Times reported last week that Piazza and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard have discussed moving the museum to Clearwater's Harborview Center, a closed convention center on the downtown waterfront that had been set for razing.
Largo officials were dismayed to hear they could lose the museum, and Mayor Pat Gerard said last week she would probably ask the city staff to contact Piazza and see if anything could be done to keep the museum from heading elsewhere.
"I certainly would not want to see it leave," Gerard said.
Piazza, a former owner of a chain of retirement homes in Florida and Texas, said if the city wants to help, it can start by trying to persuade the owners of the former Blue Hawaiian Products facility on 34th Way N to lower their price.
Piazza, 72, of Largo emphasized that he's not desperate to get out of Largo and would like to stay.
"We're just looking for options. … We're not just looking to run around the county to find another location," he said.
Piazza, a history buff who served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, founded the museum in 1996 as a traveling show to display historical items he'd collected over the years. He took the museum to his Park Place retirement homes until he sold that business and settled in the museum's current spot in 2008.
A billboard along Ulmerton points visitors toward the museum, but Piazza admits the location "isn't the best, visibility-wise."
Customers regularly tell Piazza that the museum's distance from the street leads them to expect a two-car garage with a few World War II relics, not the warehouse filled with more than 100,000 war-related items and detailed displays for every major conflict since World War I. The museum had about 30,000 visitors last year, Piazza said.
"It's a great military museum, as good as one that exists anywhere," said City Manager Mac Craig, a U.S. Army veteran. "I personally know many people who have discovered Largo as a result of coming to this museum. … Largo is lucky to have the museum, and of course the city would not want to see it leave."
City officials said that losing the museum wouldn't necessarily have a massive economic impact, but they think of the museum as something unique to Largo that they'd hate to lose.
"I think a lot of people would say we'd love to have something like that in our community," said Tom Morrissette, president of the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce. "If the opportunity comes up, we certainly want to see them stay here."
No move is imminent, and news of Hibbard's discussions with Piazza sparked backlash in Clearwater from people who want to see the Harborview Center torn down. Even if this idea falls through, Piazza said he'll be looking for a new home where he can add a reference library, a cafe and more.
"There are lots of things we'd like to do," he said, "but it'll just come down to dollars and cents."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.