NAPLES — In the name of fairness, Collier County commissioners have agreed to renegotiate a lease with the Naples Zoo.
The commission voted 3-2 to reduce the rent because it’s so expensive.
Commissioners Frank Halas and Jim Coletta opposed the change, citing concerns about losing more money when county government already is facing a tight budget.
“I sure as heck don’t want to keep shoveling money out the door,” Halas said.
The nonprofit zoo off Goodlette-Frank Road has been paying about $250,000 a year to lease its Naples land from county government.
Most of the money for the land purchase came from a referendum voters approved to save the landmark attraction a few years ago. Voters agreed to tax themselves $40 million to buy the property.
The zoo faced the threat of development as the former owners, the Fleischmann family, looked to sell the property.
The lease with county government was based on what the zoo paid the Fleischmanns before the zoo became a nonprofit. No other nonprofit in town pays such a high amount for county-owned land.
David Tetzlaff, zoo director, called the rent “exorbitant.” In the past four years, the attraction has paid the county $988,000, which has been set aside for the Gordon River Greenway, a system of trails and boardwalks planned along the river between Golden Gate Parkway and U.S. 41 East near the zoo, he said.
Tetzlaff pointed out that since the zoo became a nonprofit, $1.1 million has been invested in zoo improvements. More improvements could be made with the money that’s now going toward the land lease.
The zoo continues to offer free admission to county residents on the first Saturday of every month, amounting to a $650,000 contribution to the community, Tetzlaff said.
Most zoos pay $1 to $10 a year to lease their land, Tetzlaff said. Some receive tax money for their operations, while the Naples Zoo supports itself.
Several zoo-goers spoke in favor of reducing the amount of the lease, including 13-year-old Jenny Shackleton, an Oak Ridge Middle School student.
She said the Naples Zoo meant the world to her and she pointed out that it’s the only place in Naples where people can go to see such a wide range of animals.
She said she was there when the zoo recently opened its new black bear exhibit to the public. She also saw the new lion cubs, which she called amazing.
Shackleton said she developed her love of photography at the zoo.
“If they lose too much money, they may not be able to make as many new exhibits,” she said.
She’s looking forward to the zoo’s next addition _ giraffes. Fund-raising is under way.
Ray Carroll, president elect for the zoo’s board, urged a vote to reduce the lease amount.
“Dynamic things are happening,” he said. “We are investing in public property and we are going to continue to do so to make the community proud.”
Nearly 20 zoo supporters signed up to speak to commissioners in favor of the new lease. But most waived their time.
Commissioner Fred Coyle recommended a vote to renegotiate the zoo’s lease based on a standard one that the commission adopted Tuesday for nonprofits. Though lease amounts could vary depending on the organization and the circumstances, the standard form starts at $1 a year.
The amount of the new zoo lease is still to be determined. It will come back to county commissioners later for a vote.
“We didn’t want to save the zoo because we wanted to make money off it,” Coyle said. “We wanted to save the zoo because we wanted the zoo to continue to provide a valuable service to the county.”
It’s wrong for commissioners to look at the zoo as a “cash cow” to collect more money for the greenway project, Coyle said.
“My concern right now is that it seems we are being punished for our success,” he said.
Under the current lease, the more successful the zoo is, the more it pays in rent.
The money that is made is invested back into the zoo, Tetzlaff said.
“We’re not a family business anymore,” he said. “I’m not going to buy a house in Key West or buy a yacht with this.”
Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala said renegotiating the lease was the right thing to do, as most attractions in town don’t pay more than $10 a year to lease county land.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Commissioner Tom Henning agreed: “It’s a fairness issue.”
While happy with the positive vote, Tetzlaff said after the meeting that he will feel better about it once the new lease is approved and signed.
“Today was an absolutely positive step in the right direction,” he said. “No matter where you live in Collier County you will benefit. Everyone benefits.”