| Naples Daily News
The Bonita Springs City Council will decide whether the nonprofit organization running the Everglades Wonder Gardens should continue a $1 yearly lease or changes are needed.
Board members of the Bonita Wonder Gardens Inc. will speak about extending the lease before councilors during an October public meeting.
The city invested public dollars to save the Wonder Gardens property in May 2017. It loaned the Bonita Wonder Gardens nonprofit $3.5 million to purchase the property in 2015.
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The Wonder Gardens was expected to make a payment of $1 million about two years after the purchase. City councilors learned the nonprofit could not repay the loan and discussed loan extensions.
The Wonder Gardens managed a payment of $500,000 before the then-city council voted to keep the property under the ownership of Bonita Springs taxpayers after the nonprofit’s leaders said they lacked funding to meet scheduled payments.
City councilors want to delve into the nonprofit’s financial records before approving another lease.
“I do think there are some financial reporting issues that we have asked for and have not gotten,” Councilor Amy Quaremba said.
Wonder Gardens board members were told that the $1 yearly lease was being reviewed and could be ended by a city council vote, City Attorney Derek Rooney said.
Rooney said the agreement will be changed to end confusion about which entity owned or operated the gardens. The property would no longer be leased to the nonprofit. Instead, it would operate as a vendor on the city’s behalf, Rooney said.
“The animals, the facilities, everything is owned by the city, major improvements or major donors that may have conditions … are technically supposed to come to us,” Rooney said.
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The council wants to ensure the financial situation is secure, Quaremba said.
“I do not want that entity to be in a position where it’s going to be in a financial shutdown in the spring,” she said.
Former Councilor Peter O’Flinn is one of the council members in 2017 who voted to keep the Wonder Gardens property under ownership of the city.
“We all have said we’re dedicated to having the Wonder Gardens not just persevere but to flourish,” O’Flinn said. “I don’t think we have any choice here besides to do the right thing and to own the Wonder Gardens just as a practical matter.”
Wonder Gardens leaders said the $1 yearly loan was a format used by zoos and gardens across the country, said Trish Leonard, former president of the Wonder Gardens Board of Directors, after the deal was finalized in 2018.
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“I believe it’s the best thing for the downtown Bonita Springs area,” Leonard said then. “With what’s going to happen in the future, we are just an anchor and part of the history of Bonita Springs, and we will continue to move the downtown area.”
The Piper family established The Reptile Gardens as a roadside attraction in 1936 and owned the gardens for 77 years. Operations stopped in 2013 when the family put the property up for sale.
Photographer Jon Brady leased the property for two years while local residents created an organization to buy and operate the property with help from city funding.
If you go
What: Bonita Springs City Council
When: 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 7
Where: Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District Station 24, 27701 Bonita Grande Drive, Bonita Springs
Thaddeus Mast is a south Lee County reporter for the Naples Daily News and The Banner. Support his work by subscribing to our local news organization. Find him on Twitter as @thaddeusmast.