BONITA SPRINGS — The historic Everglades Wonder Gardens could end up in government hands.
David Piper, the owner of the business, is looking to sell the 3.5-acre property off Old 41 Road as his health worsens.
Bonita Springs City Council will discuss the possibility of purchasing the land at its next meeting, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 2.
The land could become a publicly owned botanical garden.
City Manager Gary Price said the council is still honing in on what it will discuss. Likely, there will be opposition, he said.
“We are a long way from a final decision,” he said.
Several city residents spoke in favor of public ownership at a council meeting last week.
Piper, who put the property up for sale a few months ago, has an inoperable tumor at the bottom of his spinal cord. He doesn’t know how long he’ll survive. Medically, he said, he’s “progressing negatively,” with more frequent visits to the doctor.
“What it all depends on is how quickly the tumor grows and expands or moves. It could do either,” said Piper, a former Bonita councilman.
It warmed his heart to see so many people speaking in favor of the city acquiring his property when it wasn’t even up for an official vote last Wednesday. “I thought that was great. That was really cool,” he said.
His grandfather, Lester Piper, founded Everglades Wonder Gardens in 1936, with his brother, Bill. While he wants his family’s heritage to be preserved, David Piper knows a public acquisition will involve many steps and that it could be politically controversial.
“I would help the city with everything if they would do something like that,” he said. “Maybe something can happen.”
That being said, he’s not looking to do a “fire sale.” He said he won’t sell the land for less than what he thinks it’s worth, no matter who the buyer is.
Piper continues to talk with other interested buyers, including an out-of-state developer who is planning to make a second visit to the property in the coming weeks.
“What we have to do is what’s best for our family,” Piper said.
His brother, “Buck,” also has ownership in the property, but has no interest in running the nearly 75-year-old zoological park.
The asking price for the land has not been disclosed publicly. The property has an assessed value of about $1.3 million, according to the Lee County Property Appraiser’s website.
“Our trees alone are worth more than most people’s commercial properties are, a lot of them,” Piper said.
At last week’s council meeting, Alex Grantt, a former Bonita councilman, said the city shouldn’t get hung up on the price.
“This is a most unique piece of property, due to its location. And, hence, a price can’t be placed on this gem and the crown jewels of adjoining publicly held property,” he said.
He told the council the acquisition needs to be done “as a show of love for our town.” It would be a natural fit with the other 15-plus acres of land the city already owns near the Imperial River, he said.
“Please do this for the future of our community,” he told the council. “We shall find a way, if we have to, in order to pay for this. We can’t let this opportunity just slip through our fingers, regardless of political or fiscal beliefs. This is bigger than any one of us.”
After the meeting, he said, the biggest question is how the city is going to pay for the land. But he’s confident financing can be found, possibly by working with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, or a similar land conservation group out of Washington, D.C.
Alex Size, a field representative for the Trust for Public Land in Southwest Florida, told the city council last week that his agency, based out of San Francisco, has more than $200 million to help purchase land for conservation across the country. With cash on hand, he said the trust can move quickly to close deals.
He said the trust can help negotiate sales, front the money for purchases and look for grants to help governments pay the money back.
The trust is interested in helping with the acquisition because of the land’s location and historical value.
Size has talked to Piper, but only briefly, about the possibility of a public purchase.
“Certainly it’s a good time to buy property,” Size said in a phone interview earlier this week. “But that is only if you can get a good price for the property. It depends on the willingness of the landowner.”
He said when the trust gets involved in a project it will get a private appraisal to determine an offering price for the property. The appraisal is based on the “highest and best use,” Size said.
The Trust for Public Land helped save the Naples Zoo, when the land underneath it faced the threat of redevelopment a few years ago. With this project, Collier County voters agreed to tax themselves to pay for the property. A similar referendum could be done for Everglades Wonder Gardens.
There are other revenue sources the city could use to pay for the land, including franchise taxes or other utility fees, Grantt said.
Piper said he doesn’t plan to go to the Feb. 2 meeting.
“There’s really nothing I can say or do to convince anybody of anything,” he said.
At last week’s meeting, more than a half dozen residents spoke in favor of the city acquiring the land. One of them was Todd Michaels, owner of the Keystone Garden Center in Bonita Springs, who said it would go hand-in-hand with the city’s redevelopment efforts on Old 41.
“I just think it’s honoring David’s ... grandfather that was here 80 years ago,” he said. “I don’t think we are ever going to be able to replace what he has back there in those trees. It’s an invaluable asset.”
He said the gardens aren’t something that can be recreated “within our lifetimes.”
Becky Pomerson, president of the Downtown Merchant Association, agreed.
“I would really like to see us be able to get that property, so it can be maintained in a botanical garden state,” she said. “When the Wonder Gardens was developed, David Piper’s grandfather traveled around the world and brought trees here that you won’t find ... anywhere else.”
She said one tree alone at Wonder Gardens was valued at more than $250,000.
Charlie Strader, a past president for the Bonita Springs Historical Society, asked council members last week to do some “time traveling,” and to look ahead 30 years from now. He said he hoped they would focus on the future and the rare opportunity to invest in property that may never come up again.
In an interview after the meeting, Strader added that the property is one of only a few jewels in the city. “We don’t have a lot. We feel it’s part of our town and our community,” he said.
He said it’s hard to organize residents in Bonita and difficult to get them to go to council meetings. He hopes more people will turn out in support of the acquisition on Feb. 2.
He fears the property could be redeveloped with a residential or commercial building that’s six or seven stories tall, going against the city’s small town feel.
“Once it’s gone, you just don’t get it back,” Strader said of the property. “It’s gone.”
At last week’s meeting, Councilwoman Martha Simons said the purchase should be considered.
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity or option that we should look at,” she said.
A botanical garden, or something similar, would be another “jewel in the crown” in the Old 41 area, Simons said.
Several groups have shown interest in the land and in the business. The asking price for the property does not include the business.
“There’s a very large attraction group that is interested in the whole business, but not in its location,” Piper said. “In our museum alone we have artifacts that big museums wish they had.”
Several groups are looking at acquiring only the animals. Others are interested in just the artifacts, Piper said.
“I think the land is worth more money than a business would be, though you make good money in the business,” he said.
If he dies and the property hasn’t sold, the asking price will be much higher, Piper said.
“The city, if they don’t get it now, they will never get it,” he said. “That’s just how it is. It’s sad, but true.”
Until the property is sold and as long as he’s “still kicking,” Piper said he plans to keep the attraction open and to keep improving it.
“If we don’t sell we are planning on a new exhibit in the spring,” he said. “It’s a really cool exhibit too.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.