Nostalgia, subsidies keep Sunken Gardens open
ST. PETERSBURG -
Last year, the 100-year-old drainage system that has kept much of Sunken Gardens from turning into a pond during the rainy season began to fail.
Park managers knew it was time for an overhaul when the meadow favored for outdoor weddings filled with 10 inches of water after a strong rain.
Last week, the 1920s-era visitor center had to be tented after drywood termites were detected.
“We're constantly walking the pavement to see if something needs to be addressed,” park manager Bill O'Grady said.
It's the kind of upkeep a homeowner might expect for one of those charming historic bungalows found in downtown St. Petersburg neighborhoods nearby – only the gardens' termite treatment cost $20,000.
Most old tourist attractions in the Tampa Bay area and across the state are transformed into something more lucrative, or practical, when they begin to fade.
There's a retail center where the London Wax Museum once stood in St. Pete Beach. The Tiki Gardens beach access parking lot in Indian Shores retains the name of the Pacific-themed attraction that closed there decades ago.
Sunken Gardens and a handful of other vintage Florida destinations, though, have been reckoned worth the maintenance costs to keep open, often at taxpayer expense.
St. Petersburg residents accepted a one-time tax levy in 2000 so the city could buy the gardens for $2.6 million from the Turner family.
The City Council approved another $2.7 million in city, state and federal funds the following year to restore the attraction's main building and its 1926 Mediterranean Revival style architecture.
Since then the gardens' staff and volunteers have worked to maintain the urban oasis on Fourth Street North while staying true to its historic character, always comparing new stone pavers to be installed with archived photographs.
Attendance has tripled since the reopening and the gardens have become a destination for tour groups, events and weddings, O'Grady said.
However, like another city icon, The Pier, the gardens still are supported by an annual subsidy, which totaled $238,000 in this year's budget, according to the city's enterprise facilities department.
A rare attraction like the distinctive Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales has an abundant non-profit fund to help pay for maintenance.
Edward W. Bok's endowment covers about 38 percent of the gardens' annual operating budget.
Combined with grants, that helps pay for multimillion dollar maintenance work like repairing leaks to the 200-foot tower's coquina stone exterior, facilities manager Christopher Lutton said.
Many other pre-Disney Florida attractions, however, are supported by the state.
Weeki Wachee Springs, with its crystal clear water and kitschy mermaid shows, became a state park in 2008.
Last year, more than $300,000 went into maintaining the old underwater theatre, roof repairs and other general upkeep, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The park also has brought in more than $1.4 million in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year.
But sustaining old tourist spots is more about love than money.
It's a push from the local community – baby boomers with fond childhood memories – that usually moves city and state governments to foot the bill, said Tracy Revels, a history professor at Wofford College in South Carolina and author of “Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism.”
“A lot of these places are old places that there's a lot of local affection for,” said Revels, who remembers taking school trips to Sunken Gardens growing up.
“A lot who didn't have that [affection] have gone by the wayside.”
And even though Sunken Gardens no longer boasts giant rats, alligator wrestling or the “The World's Largest Gift Shop,” its collection of tropical flora from around the world remains a novelty for visitors, too.
“This is beautiful here,” said Marietta Doyle, a New Yorker who was visiting the gardens Saturday with her husband.
“We don't get a chance to see this in the city.”
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