BRANDON— Hillsborough County veterans took another step Tuesday in their 20-year march to honor Florida's military heroes.
A ceremonial groundbreaking marked the start of a $2.5 million upgrade of Veterans' Memorial Park and Museum, located near where U.S. 301 crosses the Tampa Bypass Canal, just south of the Florida State Fairgrounds.
"This all started out as sort of pie in the sky," said Dave Braun, president of the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County. "But this whole effort has proven to me that, yes, it will get done."
Plans call for a new entrance and circular roadway, walking trails, improved signage and a 9-foot tall granite entry memorial. Ground also will be cleared for 12 outdoor "theaters of war" honoring Florida military veterans from the Seminole wars to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Future work includes a proposed 40,000-square-foot Veterans Complex and park maintenance building, which in 2007 had an estimated price tag of $9.4 million.
With the shaky economy squeezing government help and slowing private donations, area veterans and public officials acknowledge it might take until 2016 or later to realize the park's master plan.
"We are open to help of any kind," said Tom Fletcher, the county's former Veterans Affairs manager, who helped spade ceremonial dirt Tuesday.
Construction at the park must wait until the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns adjoining land, completes some drainage and erosion-control work along the canal.
If construction begins in the spring, officials expect to complete the first phase of the project, which includes the new entrance and walking trails, to wrap up by next Veterans Day, county project manager Bill Hand said.
The park expanded to 21 acres a few years ago when the county paid $2.2 million for an adjoining mobile home park, called Moss Haven, nestled in a grove of thickly covered live oaks. Officials said they plan to save most of the trees in the park upgrade.
Hand said the budget includes $1.5 million in sales tax money previously set aside for another park project, plus another $1 million in property taxes.
In the late 1980s, a park and museum honoring county veterans was proposed for an area near the intersection of Eisenhower Boulevard and Dana Shores Drive, close to Tampa International Airport. But the land soon was needed for what became the Veterans Expressway. The county offered the former Tis-A-Wee Park along the canal as an alternate site.
"It was shabby, worse with Moss Haven there, but I said, 'This is perfect,'" Braun recalled.
Officials renamed the park in 1989 and allocated more than $575,000 to build a 3,600-square-foot military history museum. Veterans collected private funds to erect the marble Freedom Memorial, the park's ceremonial centerpiece, which was dedicated in 1997.
Veterans again are seeking private donations to build each of the 12 outdoor exhibit areas. Spaces for more recent military conflicts will include equipment such as tanks or helicopters, officials said. Older wars may be recognized by relocating old memorials from other parts of the county.
"We are going to be there with you to make sure it all happens," County Administrator Pat Bean said. "It is going to be quite an expansion and will be a real treasure for years to come."
Mark Holan can be reached at email@example.com.