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At Long Last, Gardens Deal Is Complete

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25 February 2004

67-YEAR-OLD ATTRACTION SAVED

At Long Last, Gardens Deal Is Complete

Lawyers spend six hours hammering out final details of park's transfer.

By Joy Cochran

The Ledger

[email protected]

WINTER HAVEN -- Polk County residents, along with Georgia theme park owner Kent Buescher, can now call Cypress Gardens their own.

The transfer of 150 acres of the 67-year-old tourist attraction was completed Tuesday, after lawyers spent about six hours resolving last-minute issues.

"I promise you that we're going to do our best to make you all proud," Buescher told reporters during a press conference announcing the sale. "We're going to be guided every step of the way by doing the right thing."

Buescher also owns Wild Adventures, a theme park located near Valdosta.

The Trust for Public Land bought the Gardens from First Gardens L.C. for $20 million and sold it for $20.5 million to Buescher and Polk County, with an easement to the state.

The TPL will keep the extra $500,000, which will not quite cover what it cost the conservation organization to arrange the deal, most of it legal fees, said Anne Nelson, a spokeswoman for the TPL.

"We worked it as hard as we could as long as we could," said Bill Reynolds, who with developer Larry Maxwell, was a majority owner until Tuesday. "Because it was a very complicated deal, it's quite amazing how everything has fit together to bring it about."

The TPL will hold a mortgage on Buescher's $7 million portion of the purchase until private financing is completed.

"It's going to take 90 days to get the permanent financing closed," Buescher said after legal documents were signed to close the deal at the law offices of Ron Clark of Clark, Campbell & Mawhinney in Lakeland.

Public funding for the deal will come from the Department of Environmental Protection and Polk County.

Polk paid $2.5 million for the original 30-acre botanical gardens opened by johnson Pope Sr. in 1936.

The DEP paid $11 million for a conservation easement that will protect the property from development.

"Cypress Gardens is a rare piece of Florida's modern history," Gov. Jeb Bush said in a press release Tuesday after the sale. "Because of the unwavering public support and the joint commitment by state, local and private partners to save this cultural icon, Florida's first theme park will live again."

Buescher said his goal to reopen the park by Memorial Day may not be attainable, but that the park will reopen sometime this summer.

The park will reopen with a lot of familiar elements, including Southern Belles, water ski shows, animals and birds, and lush flowering gardens, Buescher said.

"They'll all be back bigger, brighter and bolder than ever," he said. "There will also be some new things."

In the next year, Buescher said he will invest another $35 million in the property.

Much of the investment will go toward the purchase of 30 new rides, including at least one roller coaster, and the beginnings of a water park, all of which will be in place by opening day.

In hopes of attracting families to the park, the new rides will be chosen for their appeal to people of all ages, Buescher said.

Adult admission to the park will be $26.95, $8 less than when the park closed April 13. Children and senior citizens will pay $22.95, according to Buescher, who will operate the entire property.

All tickets will include a second day free, if used within seven days, Buescher said.

"Ideally we're going to have to have about a million visitors a year to have a profitable product," he said. "I believe we will have a positive cash flow in 18 months."

Although annual attendance at the park reached more than 1.2 million in the 1980s, it was down to fewer than 700,000 visitors in more recent years, Buescher said.

The price for an annual pass has not yet been established, but could be as low as $49.95, Buescher said.

Buescher said he will begin immediately putting together a management team, drawing from local applicants.

When the park reopens about 300 people will be needed to operate the park initially, Buescher said.

"I believe that within 12 months of the park's opening, we'll be up at about 500," he said. "The first priority will be to former employees. We owe that to them."

The hirings will be coordinated through the state employment office in Winter Haven, Buescher said.

A plan to name the attraction Cypress Gardens Adventure Park was almost scuttled in recent weeks by Buescher's lawyers, who discovered lawsuits from 1980 that involved the use of the Cypress Gardens name, Buescher said.

About 20 years ago, the name Cypress Gardens was owned by a large citrus processor but juice was never packaged using the name, Buescher said.

"That (name issue) was a big problem. The name Winter Haven Adventure Park just wouldn't work," he said.

But all the issues have been resolved, and the park will use the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park name.

The property has not been well maintained since it closed April 13, Buescher said, adding that every building needs major repairs.

"They're not in great shape," he said. "Virtually every roof out there has to be redone."

A few smaller buildings on the property may also be demolished because of termite damage, according to Buescher.

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