BRANDON — Hillsborough County veterans of military campaigns from World War II to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan can claim a new victory.
After years of pleading, pitching and pressuring by county veterans organizations, Hillsborough County commissioners have agreed to proceed with plans to build a consolidated resource center for the men and women who have served their country in the military.
Representatives of veterans groups braved heavy rains Wednesday night to attend a public meeting to learn more about the 8,000-square-foot center, expected to be completed next summer.
The new Veterans Resource Center will be built on property that has become the focal point for countywide veterans activities, Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa. The 16-acre park is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and maintained by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.
Opened on July 4, 1991, the park, located along the Tampa Bypass Canal, is home to the Rear Adm. LeRoy Collins Jr. Veterans Museum, featuring rotating exhibits honoring those who served in the Civil War, Second Seminole Indian War, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Over the past 25 years, the park also has become home to the Fallen Heroes Memorial and Field of Honor, the Veterans' Freedom Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial.
Ceremonies and observances held at the park throughout the year now attract more than 500 veterans and supporters, said Walt Raysick of Valrico, past president and current events coordinator for the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County, which oversees activities at the park.
"This park's become the central location for all county veterans' activities so it's only fitting that it's the new home for a resource center for veterans and those interested in learning more about the involvement of Hillsborough County soldiers in military conflicts," Raysick said.
"This has been a long time in the making," agreed Dave Braun of Brandon, who served as president of the county veterans council for nine years and initiated efforts to create a park dedicated to military veterans. "Our vision was always to create a place to not only honor veterans but serve as a central location for agencies and resources to help veterans."
John Kidwell of Holmes, Hepner & Associates Architects of Tampa, designer of the new resource center, presented detailed plans at this week's meeting, including the county's strategy to accommodate veterans groups that are struggling to find locations for their meetings.
Some veterans organizations, like the county's Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, have their own buildings, but others struggle to find places to gather, Braun said.
After losing its lease on a building in Brandon two years ago, Brandon AMVETS Post 44 was forced to relocate to Plant City, he said. Another veterans group, Rolling Thunder Chapter, dedicated to Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action, struggled to find a meeting place before nearby Rasmussen College in Tampa volunteered a meeting room.
With more than 94,000 veterans, Hillsborough County — Florida's fourth most-populous overall — has the second-largest veteran population in Florida.
With veterans and their families receiving an estimated $466 million in federal benefits, Hillsborough County ranks first in the state for the economic impact of its veteran population, Braun said.
Annually, Hillsborough County Veterans Services, the agency charged with helping veterans and their families access local, state and federal benefits, assists 28,000 residents with job training, counseling, disability claims, homelessness and other needs.
The new resource center, according to Kidwell, will serve as a place where veterans can meet with agency representatives to seek help and benefits and will include a large multipurpose room for meetings, training and educational programs and special events.
In addition, it will become the new home of the veterans museum, which desperately needs space to expand as its collection of military memorabilia grows, said Gene Wheeler of Ruskin, the museum's volunteer coordinator.
"This is a dream come true," Wheeler said. "We're quickly running out of room for all of the items that have been donated to the museum. This new space will give us plenty of room for exhibits, tours and educational programs for students wanting to know more about the contributions of Hillsborough County soldiers throughout history."
The building will be constructed of economical and low-maintenance concrete block, Kidwell said, but the appearance will be anything but bland.
"We plan to install a colorful, giant banner on the exterior made up of the ribbons from all the branches of the service," he said. The banner will be printed on weather-proof mesh to resist fading and will wrap around the front of the building.
Construction is expected to begin by the end of this year.
"We'd love to have a groundbreaking on Dec. 7, the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor," Braun said. "But we don't have definite plans yet."
The $1.8 million cost of the project will come from a $300,000 allocation by Hillsborough County and a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Plans call for a 14,000- to 16,000-square-foot addition for more museum exhibits and educational programs.