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Armed Forces History Museum marches on despite challenges

John Dixon looks into the cockpit of a MiG-21 in the parking lot of the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo Wednesday.
John Dixon looks into the cockpit of a MiG-21 in the parking lot of the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo Wednesday.
Published Jan. 28, 2013

LARGO — It's been about a year since he stood near the Russian MiG-21 supersonic fighter jet and announced changes in the operation.

At the time, John Piazza Sr. announced that the Armed Forces Military Museum he'd founded would become known as the Armed Forces History Museum. He unveiled a new logo and a strategy to expand education and outreach programs.

Fast-forward 12 months.

With 20,000 new visitors walking through the front door in the last year, Piazza has seen success. And through the efforts of marketing director Cindy Bosselmann, the museum has secured additional funding including a grant through the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. The approximately $7,000 grant makes it possible for the museum to provide field trips to Title 1 schools.

However, with annual operating costs at $800,000, the museum is in the red, said Piazza, 74. "We're moving forward, but it is a challenge to run the museum. A big challenge is our location.''

In 2008, Piazza opened the non-profit museum in renovated warehouse space at the end of 34th Way N. The museum includes countless artifacts, equipment and vehicles, including tanks, Jeeps, sticky bombs, bayonets and even a uniform worn by Saddam Hussein. For the last five years, the museum has drawn in school groups, veterans and history buffs despite being tucked out of view from the nearest thoroughfare, Ulmerton Road.

Piazza admits that over the years, he has spent his own money to keep the museum going. He has developed a habit of scanning the horizon, yearning for a new home.

In September 2011, he made headlines when he met with then-Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard to discuss moving the museum into the downtown Harborview Center. But that location needed too many repairs.

A few months ago, Piazza met with officials in Pinellas Park to discuss the former Scott Buick property on U.S. 19.

Piazza called it a fact-finding meeting to see if the 14-acre site would accommodate his large equipment and interactive exhibits, such as the M8 Greyhound, a World War II reconnaissance tank.

"It would be an absolutely beautiful site to get,'' Piazza said. "But General Motors owns the Scott Buick property, and it's been rather difficult to move forward in talking with them."

According to Tim Cadell, spokesman for the city of Pinellas Park, the location is intriguing for the museum to consider because of its proximity to Freedom Lake Park, known for its military memorials as well as the F-16 fighter jet on display.

"I'm sure there would be some that would welcome them with open arms. This kind of thing can bring a lot to a community,'' he said.

Bosselmann agrees with her boss that the museum would do well at a location like the one in Pinellas Park. "It would help if we were seen from a main road,'' she said.

However, she believes the museum will persevere where it is now. "Once people find us, they come in and love us. I've never heard anyone say a bad word about us. We'll continue finding ways to pull new people in,'' she said.

Ryan Laughlin, a teenager from Brandon, visited the museum this month with his grandfather, Brad Cheaney.

"I can't get enough of going out to see this type of place,'' said Ryan, 16. "My grandfather has liked it, too. He was telling me a story about World War II and he even almost cried.''

As Ryan led his grandfather over to the cashier, he showed him a membership application. "Hey, Grandpa, so my birthday is in March,'' Ryan said.

And as they made their exit, Cheaney waved to the cashier and tucked the membership information away in his back pocket.

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