Everglades Wonder Gardens open for business ... and off the market

Olivia Grimm, 5, center, and her brother Jonny Grimm, 3, visit slider turtles at the Everglades Wonder Gardens on Tuesday in Bonita Springs. After several months of uncertainty about the Everglades Wonder Gardens, owner David Piper and his employees are preparing for another season with no intentions of selling the land. Piper said he received two offers for the site but didn't feel either was the right price. Lexey Swall/Staff

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Olivia Grimm, 5, center, and her brother Jonny Grimm, 3, visit slider turtles at the Everglades Wonder Gardens on Tuesday in Bonita Springs. After several months of uncertainty about the Everglades Wonder Gardens, owner David Piper and his employees are preparing for another season with no intentions of selling the land. Piper said he received two offers for the site but didn't feel either was the right price. Lexey Swall/Staff

— Crusher the crocodile is ready for tourist season.

So are the pink flamingos and baby alligators.

And with the Everglades Wonder Gardens property off the market, so are owner David Piper and his staff.

After putting the downtown Bonita Springs property up for sale last winter, Piper has quietly stopped fielding offers for the site of his family’s 75-year-old zoological attraction.

Now, he’s preparing to bring customers back.

“Just because we were putting it up for sale, people thought we were going to close,” Piper said. “That was just plain wrong.”

Instead, workers have been sprucing up the site while welcoming visitors during the summer months. The attraction never closed, but its future was unknown when Piper put the 3.5-acre property up for sale for the first time about a year ago. Diagnosed with an inoperable tumor at the bottom of his spinal column, Piper, 48, was uncertain about his prognosis and whether he could maintain the rigorous business schedule.

His health, however, has since held steady and the tumor has neither grown nor shrunk.

“It just depends on what the tumor decides to do,” Piper said. “It’s a painful ordeal, and I don’t take pain medication, so I’m sure some people say that it can make me a little grumpy.”

Piper said all along that he wouldn’t accept a deal on the cheap if he sold the gardens, which his family has owned and operated since 1936. He backed that up, saying he turned down undisclosed offers from an individual and a corporation.

Piper declined to identify the source of the offers and a listing price never was made public.

“Most people would have thought they were good offers money-wise,” Piper said. “But I know what the property is worth.”

The property was appraised in 2011 at $1.03 million, though Piper said the trees alone were appraised in June at about $1.8 million. A few environmental groups and developers also inquired about the land, though Piper said he thought “they were just tire kickers.”

For a couple months earlier this year, city officials were in the preliminary stages of potentially buying the land, drawing large public support for preserving the Old U.S. 41 site.

“Several people in the community, including myself, saw potential there in the downtown area, so it was kind of a natural thing for them to say we should look at it,” Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said.

The issue, as with other potential public land buys at the time, became the price tag.

“From my perspective, it’s always about cost,” Bonita Springs Councilman William Lonkart said. “When government purchases land, a lot of times the cost is cast aside because of the beauty of what people might be thinking about.”

Piper, a former city councilman, said he wasn’t opposed to one proposal that would have resulted in a sale to the city and Florida Gulf Coast University. He said FGCU would have taken the site’s animals, a key part of any deal.

“There were some parties that wanted to buy particular animals that you can’t easily get, but I told them that we weren’t going to break up the animals,” Piper said.

But without a buyer and his health holding steady, Piper decided to keep the property. Along with his wife, Dawn, and their staff, they’re hoping to bounce back in a down economy.

Piper said the gardens might even get a new exhibit in early 2012 if a piece of federal legislation is passed allowing for the exhibit. Ever the businessman, Piper remains coy about what animal would become the newest attraction.

“I don’t want anybody else to build a new exhibit like it,” Piper said.

Until then, the Everglades Wonder Gardens will keep going.

“We’re open and we’re not planning on closing,” Piper said. “As long as the good Lord provides me with good health, we’ll keep working and keeping adding exhibits.”

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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