KELLOGG, Minn. — Divers off the Florida coast can enjoy a little piece of Minnesota in the water.
The new Circle of Heroes underwater memorial, located at Veterans Reef about 10 miles off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., in about 40 feet of Gulf water, features 12 statues of heroes from different wars and branches of the military.
Three of those statues come from SVJ Creative Designs, the Kellogg statue company that makes everything from deer and giant frogs for the yard to statues of firemen, military members or police for memorial parks.
"We're very honored they tracked us down to be part of this," said Dave Speedling, who along with his wife, Shelly, owns and operates SVJ Creative Designs. "It's such an honor to be included. We respect our military people, who give us the rights we have to say what we want."
From the time of first contact to the day the statues were laid on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico was about a four-year process, said Shelly Speedling. "We needed to share with them what our statues are made out of for environmental concerns," she said.
The project, developed by oceanographer Heyward Mathews, joined two of his favorite things: honoring veterans and the ocean. Mathews, a professor at St. Petersburg College, developed the idea 10 years ago as a way to honor veterans and serve as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and trauma.
The memorial is being constructed on the sea floor in two phases with a dozen statues being sunk in place during each phase. The statues are arranged in a circle 100 feet in diameter.
Shelly Speedling said three SVJ Creative Designs statues were part of phase one: a female soldier, a kneeling soldier before a battlefield cross — a rifle in a boot with a helmet on top — and a Vietnam-era soldier holding a rifle. All three were from statue molds the company already had on hand.
The company is now working on a custom statue for phase two that will represent Coast Guard Seaman William Flores, who saved 23 people during a collision at sea.
Dave Speedling said he's been working with the Flores family to create a likeness of their hero before the statue is completed and placed in the circle. And, during the phase one ribbon-cutting ceremony last week, Shelly Speedling said, they were able to meet members of the Flores family for the first time.
The couple is hopeful they'll be able to create more statues for the Circle of Heroes phase two.
Preston Rudie, who has served as a spokesman for the project, said the hope is that phase two will be completed by either Veterans Day 2020 or Memorial Day 2021.
Rudie previously worked with former U.S. Rep. David Jolly, Mathews' nephew. Part of the funding for the project came from funds after Jolly's last campaign. The campaign funds were turned into a nonprofit that helped pay for statues and some of the services to get the statues in place.
The offshore spot where the statues sit is a place called Veterans Reef, and the statues sit in a corner of that diving spot, Rudie said.
"It's like a county park," he said. "Anyone can go out there. There are four mooring buoys to moor your boat out there."
Phase one cost roughly $200,000 to complete, mostly with funds raised locally in Florida and in-kind donations. Phase two will cost about $350,000, Rudie said, because the statues will mostly be commissioned one-of-a-kind pieces of art, like the statue of William Flores.
"The cost for that is significantly greater," he said. "They will all be truly unique."