Locals are gathering downtown to protest Bonita Springs City Council’s vote in May to demolish the former restaurant building at Everglades Wonder Gardens.
Ashley Piper, part of the Piper family that worked the Wonder Gardens for four generations, plans to be standing outside the building until dusk. Piper was devastated when she heard of council’s decision to demolish the former restaurant, which is designated as historic by the city.
“It was the first time Bonita Springs has ever broken my heart and I cried,” Piper said. “I love this town with my heart and soul. I broke down in tears and was like, what can I do?”
City Council has raised concerns that restoring the building, which dates back to the 1940s, would cost the city too much. Residents such as former Bonita Springs Councilor Martha Simons disagrees with that mindset.
“If you don’t have mold and ABA issues in Florida on a historic building, then you don’t really have a historic building,” Simons said. “They’re all expensive to renovate, they all have issues, they’re older and they didn’t have the kind of building codes we have today.”
The Wonder Gardens at one point received a $100,000 pledge from a donor wanting to create an educational center. The offer got withdrawn when the city took too long to get the project approved. Now, Piper has been looking into ways of reopening the building for business.
“This means a lot to me, and I would love to see it open again,” Piper said. “Actually, how I figured out that it was being demolished is because we were looking to open it up again.”
Piper would like to see the building reopened as another restaurant or a retail store. Elnita Hitchcock, who attended the protest and is part of a family made up of five-generation Bonita Springs natives, sees potential in pursuing the idea of an educational center.
“I would like to see it turned into something more educational for saving our animals and our sea, protecting our water,” Hitchcock said.
Kitty Koshko has lived in Bonita for 20 years and is worried that the town is turning too much toward development and will lose its reputation for being friendly to small businesses. “I understand that we need to fix our community vitality, so preserving the history and then refurbishing around that is a way we should plan for a future generation,” Koshko said. DSC0626
Historic Preservation Board member Richard Meyers went to the protest today to stand up for what brought him to Bonita Springs two years ago. “I was drawn to this place because of places like this, because of the Shangri-La, because of the feel of a small town,” Meyers said. “It’s something that’s organic that’s developed over time.”
Piper feels if the city has the means to tear down this historic site, other preserved buildings could be faced with the same fate. “If they are able to take down the restaurant, the Wonder Gardens will be going shortly after that,” Piper said. “I feel like it shouldn’t be up to council, it shouldn’t be up to the mayor, I would like them to put on the agenda for a ballot so the Bonita people can make their vote.”
This protest is the first of multiple demonstrations that Piper and others who oppose council’s decision will be holding to voice their passion and love for preserving Bonita Springs’ history.
“It is critical that we stand for history and we help preserve what has been laid before us so that we can be stronger and better for the years to come,” Koshko said. “People come here because of the small-town charm and the local history.”