In a race against time, John Brady is not looking back.
Almost seven months after he took the reins of the Everglades Wonder Gardens, Brady does not want to talk about the people who haven’t visited the revamped Old 41 roadside attraction since he reopened it in June.
Instead, Brady is focused on the crowds he expects now that season has returned.
“It’s always a race,” said Brady, who is planning a grand reopening sometime in January. “It’s still a race.”
Brady, a nature photographer, took over the Wonder Gardens after the owners, the Piper family, closed it in April due to health concerns. He got rid of most of the animals — save for the iconic gators and flamingos — and is instead highlighting the botanical gardens. He sees it as an opportunity to preserve a piece of Old Florida.
Brady has sunk all of his savings, save for his 401k and his house, into the 78-year-old property in order to prevent it from becoming another high-rise condo.
His friends told him not to, but his family rallied behind him to help lease the property.
“I was compelled to do it,” Brady said. “You couldn’t stop me.”
Brady said the Pipers agree with his vision, but knows if someone offers to buy the land “he will have to go away.”
In the meantime, he is working with consultant Ellie Krier, to turn the Wonder Gardens into a nonprofit.
Once it gains nonprofit status, Brady will be able to accept donations and donors will be able to write off their donation. Asking for money is not something Brady says he is overly comfortable with.
“I’m not affluent. I didn’t come from that world and I’m not doing this for money,” Brady said. “But the Gardens depend on it.”
Krier and Brady are hoping to hear back from the IRS by the end of the year.
“I’ve seen them come back in two weeks. One time they came back in a month, but I’ve seen them take as long as a year,” Krier said.
Raising $1 million in donations would help Brady rehab the old buildings; upgrade the utilities; provide natural filtration to the turtle and duck pounds; and turn the main building by the lawn, where weddings sometimes take place, into an Old Florida-style building where receptions or meetings can be held.
Eventually Brady hopes a charity in line with his vision will scoop up the property and take it over while keeping the Florida charm intact.
“Unfortunately, we are a hidden gem,” Brady said. “This place is a piece of Bonita Springs history and the community needs to know that the Wonder Gardens belongs to them too.”