Think George Washington had a tough time crossing the Delaware River back in 1776?

Well, no tougher than what his latter-day admirers have endured trying to refurbish the crumbling, state-owned visitor center at the Bucks County site of that event.

At long last, a groundbreaking ceremony was held Friday morning along the riverbank at Washington Crossing Historic Park. Within 30 days, a major expansion and renovation of the shuttered center is expected to begin.

Completion of the mostly state-funded $5 million project is planned for late summer 2012.

The proposal has been taking shape - and accumulating state funding - for more than a decade. But a tortuous series of false starts, shifting plans, and squabbles among government entities, volunteer groups, and others has kept it from happening.

So the ceremonial shoveling of dirt Friday was no small deal.

"We made it! We're here, finally," exclaimed Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, a former Bucks County commissioner.

"Many of us know how long this has taken . . . and how many promises were made," Cawley said. "And now, finally, at least some of those promises are being kept."

The visitor center, last renovated in 1976, has long been plagued by a leaking roof, mold and air-quality problems, falling ceiling tiles, and broken auditorium chairs. After several attempts to keep it open, it was closed last year.

The renovations will add 3,200 square feet of space, provide an overlook of the river, and include state-of-the-art exhibition space, better parking, a larger museum shop, and an education center sponsored by a Lockheed Martin grant of $400,000. It will be heated and cooled with a geothermal system.

"They say that good things are worth waiting for, and that certainly is the case today," said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees the site with help of the volunteer Friends of Washington Crossing Park.

The Lockheed Martin grant was the final piece that made the project doable, said State Rep. Scott A. Petri (R., Bucks), who represents the area and has pushed for renovations.

The park is the most popular state-owned historic site, drawing more than 300,000 visitors per year.

"The visitors still come out, because this is Washington Crossing Park," said John Godzieba, president of the park's volunteer organization, who portrays Washington in the annual Christmas reenactment of the crossing. "I can't imagine, when this is completed, how many visitors we will be bringing back just to see a fully functioning museum."

The park commemorates what many historians consider the turning point of the American Revolution: Washington's daring Christmas-night crossing of the icy river with his ragged, demoralized troops, en route to a surprise rout of British-allied Hessian mercenaries encamped in Trenton.

"This site, this location, deserves the best," Cawley said, stressing its significance to the then-infant nation. "Without this site, there is no United States of America."

Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446, lking@phillynews.com, or @KingInq on Twitter.