Tourist Draw Butterfly World Says It Could Close If County Raises Rent 500%
Ever since it opened in Coconut Creek in 1988, Butterfly World has delighted visitors who wander through the lush tropical grounds while butterflies and hummingbirds flit around their heads. But the attraction could cease to operate if it cannot come to an agreement with Broward County now that its 30-year lease at Tradewinds Park is set to expire.
Butterfly World was founded by a retired electrical engineer from Illinois, Ronald Boender, who raised butterflies as a hobby. He started a business breeding butterflies, and the parks department asked him to set up in the county's Tradewinds Park to enliven the place. Coconut Creek's slogan became "The Butterfly Capital of the World."
Butterfly World leased the land and constructed aviaries, a lake, ponds, buildings and pathways. The 3-acre site includes a swinging bridge, six aviaries for 20,000 butterflies and tropical birds, a "live bug zoo" with insects from around the world, research and breeding facilities and a lorikeet encounter, where people can hold the tiny, colorful parrots. It is funded by admission fees, plant sales and private gifts.
But now, in a call for public support that was posted online, Butterfly World’s operators say that its lease is up, and "although we have been engaged in negotiations with the Broward County Parks Department for years seeking a renewal, unfortunately, we must report to you that we are at an impasse in these negotiations due to substantially increased financial terms and conditions that we cannot approve."
Butterfly World says it has never taken public funds, and actually generated millions for Broward County in park fees, promotions and tourism.
“Without a renewed lease, Butterfly World may not be able to continue operations," it wrote.
According to a letter sent by Butterfly World's attorney, John Miledge, to county commissioners, Butterfly World pays $18K a year in rent and has offered to increase that to $30K. A gate fee that visitors pay to the park is $1.50 and brings the county about $100K each year. County negotiators, however, want 3% of gross revenues or $115K, whichever is greater. That is an increase of more than 500%, Miledge wrote, and would be detrimental to the facility's operations.
Admission to Butterfly World is $29.95 per adult. The company is a for-profit corporation. Boender's daughter, Mary Jane Vanden Berge, now runs it. Minutes from government meetings show that, as far back as 2009, Boender was attempting to discuss the lease with officials.
"Mr. Boender has been lobbying the commissioners to get a feel as to whether or not they will be interested in renewing the contract, primarily because he is willing to do additional and substantial investments," minutes from a 2009 parks advisory board meeting state. "Butterfly World has to keep changing or adding things to their attraction in order to keep people coming back, which he has done so over the years."
Vanden Berge did not return a message seeking comment.
A representative in county Mayor Beam Furr's office said that the mayor had no comment, as the matter is under discussion. Furr's own yard is a certified wildlife habitat designed to attract butterflies.
The subject is on the agenda to be discussed publicly Feb. 27 at the regular 10 a.m. commission meeting.