A century ago the town sold the state "five acres of salt marsh" in the area now known as Sherwood Island State Park, Gov. Dannel Malloy told the crowd gathered Wednesday afternoon for a ground-breaking ceremony at the park's pavilion marking the start of a $3.5 million renovation project.

"I don't know why we needed it or who the governor was back then," Malloy joked, adding that small acquisition led to what is now a 230-acre park -- the land was the first acquired for the state's inventory of parks -- that includes a nature center and the state's memorial to Connecticut residents killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But it was the deteriorating pavilion, built in 1961, that was the focus of attention Wednesday, with the state-funded renovations to include upgrades to its bathrooms, kitchen and concessions, a new roof, the addition of a skylight and solar-heating panels, and the replacement of tables and seating.

"The park like people gets older and since it was completed there has been only one major renovation" of the pavilion, the governor said, and that was 25 years ago.

Malloy was at the park for last year's 9/11 memorial ceremony, and noted at the time the pavilion bathrooms "needed some work."

Malloy, a former Stamford mayor, is no stranger to the park, having gone there the first 10 years of his life for July 4 picnics that included his large, extended family. "We drew lots to see who would have to get there early to save a space," he said, adding that wasn't until a relative bought a backyard pool that the family's picnics shifted there.

"Coming back always reminds me just how great this place is," he said.

"This is an exciting moment," said First Selectman Jim Marpe, adding that the town and Sherwood Island, from the very beginning, has had a "symbiotic" relationship.

Before it became a state park, parts of the land in the Greens Farms section of town were farmed in the 1800s by the Sherwood family -- whose name the park now pays tribute to.

"This project is long awaited and eagerly anticipated," said Robert Klee, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The Sherwood Island renovations are part of an overall $60 million project to refurbish facilities in parks across the state, he indicated.

He thanked the Friends of Sherwood Island, the support group that raises money for a range of programs in the park -- including a nature center that opened several years ago -- and the park's staff for their support in getting the project funded.

Liz-Ann Koos, president of the Friends of Sherwood Island, thanked the many volunteers in her group for all their efforts. "There are few Friends (of other state parks) that are as dedicated as those here," she said.

Sherwood Island annually is visited by thousands of people, according to Louis Pietig, a Friends member.