After four years of planning and fundraising, the Michigan Maritime Museum broke ground Friday on its new $3.6 million Heritage Center.

The new museum will replace the small, cramped one-story structure that has housed the museum’s exhibits and programs for the past several decades.

“This is an epic moment, not just for the museum, but for the city,” said South Haven City Manager Kate Hosier, who was one of a handful of governmental officials and Maritime Museum board members who spoke during the groundbreaking ceremony, Aug. 27, at the museum campus at 260 Dyckman Avenue, just west of the drawbridge.

Midwest Construction Group of Zeeland has been hired to build the 17,000-square-foot, two-story Heritage Center. The company will begin tearing down the existing 1,000-square-foot museum in mid-September and plans to complete the new complex in June of 2022, according to Brian VanBeveren, vice-president for Midwest Construction.

The new Heritage Center, designed by Edgewater Resources of St. Joseph, will house a large exhibit space that can be divided in half, more bathrooms, a learning center for children’s programs, and an atrium spanning both stories. The second floor will have more offices, conference rooms and an event space and a catering kitchen for museum and public gatherings.

“We didn’t want the new building to be an event center, but a museum with event capabilities,” said Brian Bosgraaf, chairman of the museum’s capital campaign committee and the museum’s building committee.

The Heritage Center is just one part of the museum’s ambitious $8 million campaign to expand its campus along the city’s harbor and to preserve South Haven’s role in Michigan’s maritime history.

“The museum holds such a central place on the harbor,” Bosgraaf said. “We feel it’s the museum’s duty to take the lead in protecting the history of this harbor.”

So far, the museum board has raised more than $6 million, which has allowed it to purchase the historic Jensen fishery buildings at the entrance to the harbor, right next to the museum’s campus and the Dyckman Avenue drawbridge.

Earlier this year, contractors removed the old Jensen marina clubhouse and are in the process of restoring one of the fishery buildings into an indoor facility to showcase South Haven’s role in commercial fishing during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The other two-story building on the Jensen property will be used to house the museum’s extensive small craft exhibit. Due to record high water levels along the Black River channel last year, $275,000 worth of work also was undertaken – most of it in-kind – to shore up the grade on the Jensen property to avoid future flooding.

With work underway on improving the Jensen property and enough funds raised to begin the building of the Heritage Center, the museum will next turn its attention to raising funds for the third phase of the expansion project, which entails construction of a new two-story building on the Jensen site for use by the museum’s excursion captains and for small conferences; replacement of the Jensen parking lot with grass for outdoor events and workshops; construction of two new docks for longer vessels and tall ships that visit the museum; construction of an outdoor patio that will include a large, three-season tent for outdoor events; and improving the museum grounds by making them more easily accessible for walking to the museum’s other historic boat buildings and to its excursion boats, such as the Friends Good Will tall ship.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who attended the groundbreaking, said he was impressed with the progress the museum’s board of directors has made with its expansion plans.

“This is a special place,” said Upton, who likened the museum, its campus and on-the-water exhibits to local landmarks, such as South Haven’s historic lighthouse, that people think of when asked about the city’s attractions.

“It (the museum’s grounds and facilities along the city’s harbor) really is a beacon of South Haven,” Upton said.