Wonder Gardens closing as Bonita Springs moves on Old 41 revitalization

While signs such as the ones which advertise for Everglades Wonder Gardens along Old 41 in Bonita Springs are grandfathered in, new sign restrictions means those types of signs as well as others may be a thing of the past .  Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER // Buy this photo

While signs such as the ones which advertise for Everglades Wonder Gardens along Old 41 in Bonita Springs are grandfathered in, new sign restrictions means those types of signs as well as others may be a thing of the past . Michel Fortier/Staff

— Everglades Wonder Gardens is closing today. The historic Shangri-La Hotel and Resort in downtown Bonita Springs still isn’t open.

So what’s to become of that commercial stretch of Old 41 Road?

Business owner Rey Ranghell wants the city to revitalize the area.

“Basically, with those two big places closed down, there is nothing much else down here,” said Ranghell, owner of Hot Caboose Island Grille, about 2 miles north of the Old 41 Road intersection with Bonita Beach Road.

Except for days with events in neaby Riverside Park in Bonita Springs, Ranghell said, “we do not have anything that will invite people to downtown Bonita now.”

Ranghell said he would like someone else to buy the zoological attraction and for the hotel to finally open.

The city created financial business incentives to help merchants like Ranghell open his new Caribbean and Southern American restaurant in May 2012 at the former Dixie Moon Cafe at Old 41 Road and Dean Street. Recent additions to the downtown corridor have included Hot Caboose and a few other new retailers.

Bonita Springs City Manager Carl Schwing said the City Council is working with Lee County government on creating a Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, in that corridor. CRAs help communities eliminate and prevent blight, reduce or prevent crime, provide affordable housing or rehabilitate and revitalize resort and tourist areas.

“If approved by the county and the City Council, we are looking to invest approximately $16 million in infrastructure improvements such as a centralized stormwater system and more on-street parking,” he said in an email. “Both of these will make development opportunities in the downtown greater because owners, developers and builders will be able to use a greater percentage of their properties instead of having to reserve it for water retention and parking.”

The money would come from taxes raised within the redevelopment area.

Schwing said the city also has adopted other progressive financial incentives for the downtown area, including facade renovation and matching grants for painting, landscape improvement matching grants, money for job creation and rent subsidies, as well as “finder’s fees” for leads that turn into new businesses.

There are plans to make art more important downtown, he said, including the city working to get artists to paint murals on some blank walls.

“So little by little, we are moving in a direction where we are giving folks more reasons to come and visit downtown,” Schwing said in an email.

Schwing said it’s too early to say when the projects could start because there are many steps. He is scheduled to make a presentation on redevelopment to the Lee County Commission at a management and planning meeting in May.

Ranghell looks forward to action to revitalize downtown Bonita Springs.

“There is not much going on downtown and it’s pretty boring right now,” said Ranghell, who plans to add a tiki hut this summer to attract new business.

Allison DeFoor, an attorney for the Shangri-La who represents the current owners, the Lama Hana Trust, couldn’t be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

The historic resort in downtown Bonita Springs opened in 1924 and later closed, then was purchased by the Lama Hana Trust in 1998. It has remained closed to the public since, but last year reopened as the Shangri-La Healing Waters Spa/Hotel for reunions, conferences and weekend events.

Roger Palmer and Seth Heyes, owners of Pottery as Art, said the city has been accommodating to the business. Pottery as Art, in business for six years, is north of Bonita Beach Road in the 27500 block of Old 41 Road.

Palmer points to the business’ outdoor display, which some communities wouldn’t allow.

“There is no golden ticket to revitalize the area overnight,” co-owner Seth Heyes added. “It’s going to take a number of years to really draw in the business.”

Nearby, on the east side of Old 41 Road, Heaven Scent Flowers & Tuxedos Inc. owner Susie Sayger is excited about the opportunity to create a CRA for the unique, quaint and fun commercial corridor downtown.

“The draw to get exposure into the corridor is important to me,” said Sayger, who has been in business with the flower shop for 28 years and the ice cream store for five years.

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