‘Roadside Attraction’ Redux - David Webb has new vision for Everglades Wonder GardensJan 24, 2021 12:20PM ● By Jeff Lytle
David Rahahe•ti Webb walks the walk when he outlines his vision as the new executive director at Everglades Wonder Gardens, a landmark in Bonita Springs since 1936.
Respect for history? He’s an eighth-generation Floridian whose great-grandfather was the first employee at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Webb’s native Sanibel Island. Now 42, Webb launched his nature career there as a volunteer at age 11. He grew up wading through swamps on his family’s sprawling camp off today’s bustling Corkscrew Road in Estero. A proud member of Haudenosaunee, Tuscarora and Meherrin tribes, he speaks the Tuscarora language.
Knowledge of the community? Webb is a graduate of Lee County public schools and taught at Fort Myers High and a Naples middle school. He graduated summa cum laude from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2004, and has worked for The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and for Naples Botanical Garden.
All those credentials and more are coming in handy for Webb as he “opens doors and makes connections” to raise the stature of Everglades Wonder Gardens—centrally located on 3.5 acres on the Imperial River amid downtown redevelopment.
Webb’s first order of business with staff members was business. He wants them to think of themselves as vested “bridge builders and revenue generators” with the public. Through wages and professional growth, they all have stakes in the outcome. Webb himself is busy connecting with community and wildlife foundations.
His last job was with an aquarium in Niagara Falls, N.Y., handled simultaneously with an IMAX film/education project for the Museum of Science & Discovery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (“I’m an overachiever,” he says.) Webb makes it clear that animals will continue to enjoy a special place at Everglades Wonder Gardens. He notes that the alligators, peacocks, ducks, flamingoes, parrots, macaws, fish, lizards, lorikeets and others are part of its legacy.
And, when the animals’ housing and displays get an overdue update, he emphasizes, the style will be “Old Florida.” Ditto for signage explaining plants and exhibits, which Webb stresses as part of its “storytelling.”
The big picture, he goes on, will seek the right balance between a zoo and a garden, with an overriding atmosphere of history and fun—for adults and children. Think of a resting bench for grandparents, next to a gurgling fountain of youth. Think a mantra of “escape and enjoy.” As you enter the grounds, imagine being greeted by parrots on parasol-shaped perches. Envision a kitschy color scheme of pink and teal.
Rob Moher, president and CEO of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, is a former supervisor of Webb and offers this testimonial: “David Webb is a highly capable and knowledgeable conservation education leader who has worked in various parts of the state of Florida to advance opportunities for the public to learn more regarding our unique environment.” Webb worked with Moher in education and guest services from 2011 to 2014, after interning in 2004. “We applaud David’s new role as executive director of the Everglades Wonder Gardens,” Moher adds.
Brian Galligan, vice president of horticulture at Naples Botanical Garden, where Webb worked from 2008 to 2010, says: “I remember he was pretty enthusiastic about natural Florida and our history. I do think old-school roadside attractions are going to be fun for him.” (And FYI—“roadside attractions” is not used as a derogatory term. Webb uses it himself to describe Everglades Wonder Gardens!)
Reopening in September after a pandemic break, which gave staff time to launch projects to tidy up and organize plant displays, Webb aims to keep Everglades Wonder Gardens buzzing with activity. A welcome-back open house on a Saturday greeted 400 guests spread over several hours for social distancing. Webb says educational, festive and special programs for Flamingo Day and Earth Day, for example, are booked solid through October 2021. The grounds offer a naturally lovely backdrop for weddings.
In keeping with the ambitious pace to connect with the community, a top goal for Webb is for Everglades Wonder Gardens to earn accreditation from the nationwide 440-member Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The AZA’s name on marketing tools validates specific sustainable standards for animal care and safety. Webb says the application process is arduous and will take about two years, with ongoing quality reviews. Success will send a signal to the industry as well as tourists who take animal welfare seriously.
The effort comes naturally as Webb works to leverage his extensive and well-traveled background as a grant-writing, budget-building master planner. “David brings a whole new vision … everyone on the board and staff are glad he accepted the position,” says Donna Flammang, board chairwoman of Everglades Wonder Gardens. “He has a great environmental, educational and fauna background.”
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.
IF YOU GO:
27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs