Move to Save Cypress Gardens Site (FL)

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit land conservation organization, announced today that it has a contract to purchase for conservation 107 acres of the Cypress Gardens site outside Winter Haven, Florida.

Opened in 1936, Cypress Gardens grew from a Depression-era federal works project into Florida’s first theme park. The Winter Haven attraction is know worldwide for its botanical gardens, Florida-shaped pool, water ski shows, and hoop-skirted Southern Belles. The park was closed in April of this year, with a prominent developer poised to build a new lakefront community. After a strong public outcry to preserve the core property, the owners and state officials began looking for alternatives to protect the historic site.

“Cypress Gardens is an important part of Florida’s heritage,” said Governor Jeb Bush. “The Trust for Public Land has moved quickly to protect the property, and is well known for its innovative approach to preserving land. By working together, I am hopeful we can protect this environmental and cultural treasure for generations to come.”

First Gardens, L.C., owner of the real property, agreed to give TPL an opportunity to protect the site, and signed a contract late Friday, August 22 that covers the core 107 acres of the site, including the botanical gardens, the water ski arena, Snively Mansion, the butterfly conservatory, and historic structures such as the radio museum. The contract includes the following points:
1. TPL has 30 days to evaluate the property and see if an appraisal meets the landowners’ price expectations. If not, the landowner will decide whether to accept the appraised price or terminate the agreement. A state-approved appraiser has been hired and will begin working on the appraisal immediately.
2. Once TPL and First Gardens LC agree on a price, TPL will then have four months to work out who will own the property long term.

As a rule, TPL does not manage property long term. Instead, we look for a buyer who will ensure continued public access to the site.

“The important thing is that core areas of Cypress Gardens will not be developed, but will remain a beautiful park and open space for the people of Florida,” said Greg Chelius, Florida director for the Trust for Public Land.

Bill Reynolds, of First Gardens L.C., said that “the owner has worked hard to make this contract a reality and is pleased to enter into the contract. The owner believes that TPL is the best qualified party to consummate this complex transaction within the tight timeframe that exists for the gardens. We believe TPL is the best and last resort for preservation of the core elements of the gardens.”

One of the primary outstanding issues that TPL will need to resolve is who will take over management of the property. Several buyers have expressed interest in the site, with the intent of continuing its use as an amusement park.

Another option is to create a nonprofit organization to manage the property, in particular the 37-acre botanical garden. This has been done successfully in places such as McKee Botanical Gardens in Indian River County, another project that TPL spearheaded.

The state has expressed an interest in buying a conservation easement to protect the gardens from development, and TPL will work with state Department of Environmental Protection officials to develop a workable easement. A conservation easement is the purchase of a package of development rights on a piece of property.

While TPL has the land under option, it will commit its resources to securing and maintaining the property to prevent further deterioration. TPL is working with former state Sen. Rick Dantzler, son-in-law of Dick Pope, Jr., whose parents founded the gardens in 1936, to mobilize a volunteer corps that will clean up and manage the property in cooperation with First Gardens, L.C. As chair of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce’s Task Force on the Future of Cypress Gardens, Dantzler has committed the organization’s resources to coordinating volunteer efforts, which will include cleaning up the gardens.

“The community has benefited for years from Cypress Gardens, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to help make this happen,” Dantzler said.

Public purchase of the gardens will inevitably change the sites’ character, Chelius pointed out. “Our goal is to prevent development and preserve the historic integrity of this Florida icon, provide continued economic benefit to the community, and create public access to this internationally known and beloved place,” he said.

The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit organization working exclusively to protect land for human enjoyment and well-being. TPL helps conserve land for recreation and spiritual nourishment and to improve the health and quality of life of American communities. Operating in Florida since 1975, TPL has helped save more than 275 sites as community parks, waterfronts, historic sites, greenways and trails. The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money magazine recently named TPL the nation’s most efficient large conservation charity for the second year in a row, based on the percentage of funds dedicated to programs.