Includes minor Disney blurb at the bottom regarding job fair for Cyress employees. But I thought this was interesting. Governor considers new life for Cypress Gardens Aja Whitaker Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven has seen its last day as a privately operated theme park, but that may not mean the end for the historical tourist attraction. Media reports initially indicated that Gov. Jeb Bush did not foresee a state interest in taking over operations at Cypress Gardens. But on Tuesday, Bush apparently had a change of heart and directed Bob Ballard, Florida Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary, to meet with Cypress Gardens' owner Bill Reynolds on Wednesday to discuss a state acquisition of the property through the Florida Forever program. The 10-year, $3-billion program sets aside $300 million dollars to purchase and conserve environmentally sensitive and undeveloped land, restore water resources and preserve cultural and historical sites. If Reynolds is deemed a willing seller and the property meets program criteria, Cypress Gardens could become a state-owned venture. On Tuesday, Reynolds did not return calls from the Business Journal Serving Greater Tampa Bay for comments. The existing management structure at Cypress Garden would not remain in place and no decision has been made pertaining to the future of approximately 500 former park employees, said Kathalyn Gaither, DEP spokeswoman. Property evaluators from the department's division of State Lands will determine Cypress Gardens' appraisal value if Reynolds is willing to deal, she said. An acquisition to purchase request is then brought to the Acquisition and Restoration Council, known as ARC. Upon approval, Cypress Gardens would be placed on the cabinet agenda. If the cabinet approved, it would be placed on a long list of properties scheduled for purchase, she said. Properties are not always purchased all at once and may be bought in sections as the state sees fit. The length of time it would take to convert 200-acre Cypress Gardens for a yet-to-be-determined use is unknown, said Gaither. Most of Cypress Gardens is zoned for tourist-commercial and some residential use. Pending a review by Polk County zoning officials, current zoning allows multifamily housing or up to 50,000 square feet of commercial space. Officials at Cypress Gardens announced plans in July to develop 100 acres for residential or commercial use that would complement the gardens. Initial word of the development came in October 2001, when Polk County developer Larry Maxwell purchased a significant equity position in the privately held attraction. The development, when it starts, "most likely will be a combination of upscale retirement residential and commercial," Maxwell told the Orlando Business Journal in July 2002. Cypress Gardens opened in 1936 and faced many obstacles in recent years. "The circumstances dating back to Sept.11, 2001, which brought about an immediate decline in the tourism industry, are part of the decision to close," said Reynolds in a release. "Attendance, the park's major source of revenue, has never rebounded from this event. The park's March attendance was down 42,000 visitors from the previous year." Amusement Business, a trade publication that tracks theme park attendance, estimated the venue's attendance in 2001 at nearly 1 million visitors. The decision to close resulted from a lack of funds needed to sustain the normal operations, placing the company in a faltering and distressed situation, Reynolds stated in the release. Reynolds acquired Cypress Gardens in 1995 from Busch Entertainment Corp. During eight years of ownership, operations have accumulated losses of more than $6 million and financial issues pertaining to creditors and others will be dealt with in accordance with the limited available resources and in consultation with financial advisers and legal counsel, Reynolds stated in the release. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, an employee job fair is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Area employers including Polk Works, Universal Studios and The Walt Disney Co. are scheduled to participate. © 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.