Bonita Springs Florida Weekly

Wonder Gardens solidifies partnership with City of Bonita Springs

Agreement ensures the future of the longtime attraction

Staff of the Wonder Gardens offer many enhanced guest experiences to increase environmental awareness. COURTESY PHOTO

Staff of the Wonder Gardens offer many enhanced guest experiences to increase environmental awareness. COURTESY PHOTO

The City of Bonita Springs has approved a renewable public-private partnership operating agreement with the Wonder Gardens for a period of 10 years. The agreement was approved after a second reading at the City of Bonita Springs Council meeting on April 3.

“The City is happy to have reached a comprehensive agreement for such a staple in downtown Bonita Springs. The Wonder Gardens is reminiscent of Old Florida, giving a connection to the past for our community. Finalizing the agreement is icing on the cake and a great way to celebrate the city’s upcoming 25th anniversary,” said Mayor Rick Steinmeyer.

In the agreement, signed by the Bonita Springs City Council, the Wonder Gardens will pay the city $50,000 a year in rent and provide capital improvements of $3 million or more over the 10-year term. Additionally, any naming rights, subleases and property improvements will require city approval.

“This has been a long time coming for all parties involved and I am very proud of the end result,” said Councilman Jesse Purdon. “As we charge into a brand-new day with the Wonder Gardens, things have never looked or felt so good for the greatest city in America.”

“We are grateful to the city officials and the City Council who have taken the time to work out this agreement,” said Wendy Arsenault DVM, chair of the Wonder Gardens board. “As a Bonita Springs resident and previous business owner, I understand the value of the Wonder Gardens for the city and the citizens, providing education and delight while drawing others into our community. As a veterinarian, I am pleased with the changes that have been made in the last several years to make the attraction a topnotch zoo facility and look forward to the future.”

The agreement solidifies a strong partnership between the Wonder Gardens, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and the City of Bonita Springs, which owns the 3.5 acres that house the historic attraction.

“We’re so pleased to continue our relationship and collaboration with the City of Bonita Springs and welcome the vision and commitment to honoring the Wonder Garden’s legacy as an iconic representation of Old Florida at its best, while ensuring its relevancy and sustainability as a beloved community institution in the heart of Bonita Springs,” said Neil Anderson, president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the Wonder Gardens. “The support of the city allows us to update and expand the Wonder Gardens experience while continuing what makes the Wonder Gardens so special. With the city’s collaboration, we look forward to enhancing all that makes the Wonder Gardens a beloved community treasure that represents a link to the rich, cultural legacy of Bonita Springs.”

In April 2015, a group of citizens created the nonprofit Bonita Wonder Gardens Inc. and contracted to purchase the attraction, which has a storied history dating back to 1936, to save it from potential commercial development. When the group was unable to raise sufficient funds to secure the acquisition, the city provided $3 million, secured by a mortgage. In January 2018, when the nonprofit was unable to repay the mortgage, the city took title to the land.

The new public-private partnership operating agreement allows the city and the Wonder Gardens to look forward to the community attraction’s next chapter, including pursuing accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and developing a master plan for new exhibits and improvements. In 1936, the Piper family established The Reptile Gardens as a roadside attraction along the newly built Tamiami Trail from Tampa to Miami. As the animal and botanical exhibits grew, the attraction’s name was changed to Everglades Wonder Gardens to better reflect the experience available to guests.

The Wonder Gardens, at 27180 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs, is one of the few remaining cornerstones of Old Florida, an enduring symbol of the history of the region, and a resource for learning about the environment and wildlife. For information, visit wondergardens.org or call 239-992-2591. ¦

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