LAND O'LAKES — The Nature Center at the Wilderness Lake Preserve is the kind of amenity that can entice people to pay up to $1-million for a house.
The 1,915-square-foot lodge has its own collection of reptiles, mammals and birds for kids to handle. It is designed with a Disney-like feel, from its wheelbarrow bench to the animal skull on the wall.
And to top it off, a wooden sign graces its walls, bearing the logo of the Lowry Park Zoo.
"The Nature Center at Wilderness Lodge has been designated a Lowry Park Zoo educational outreach location," its Web site says.
Carl Lindell is the developer of Wilderness Lake Preserve. He also is a member of the taxpayer-funded zoo's board of directors and has reportedly made at least half a million dollars in donations to the zoo.
His Web site says, "Lindell Properties' special alliance between Wilderness Lake Preserve and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo raised the bar on how developers work with environmentalists."
But when asked about Lowry's relationship with the private development, zoo spokeswoman Rachel Nelson initially said, "I don't know what this is."
Nelson later reported that the zoo has made three appearances at the nature center, which opened in 2003. Twice, the zoo's outreach team was hired by the development to conduct animal "meet-and-greets" for its residents, Nelson said. The third time, the zoo led a five-day camp there in which children's fees were paid directly to the zoo.
The zoo has not participated in any activities at the center since 2004. "We don't consider it an active outreach location," Nelson says.
But the lodge sign still bears its logo.
Which raises a question: Why is this particular development allowed to use the zoo's logo on its wall, and call itself a "designated educational outreach location"?
"It just seemed like the best way to advertise it," Lindell said.
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Located off U.S. 41, the Wilderness Lake Preserve includes 960 homes priced from $200,000 to $1-million.
Some of its subcommunities are gated, but a "ranger" stands in a guard post at the entrance to the development, which sits on a 38-acre lake.
Residents can use the nature center for free. Members of the public don't visit often. But they can, if they pay for a day pass. Adults pay $20, a dollar more than it costs to get into Lowry Park Zoo. Children older than 4 pay $10.
The zoo doesn't receive any of that money.
At one point, Nelson called Lowry's relationship with Lindell's development a "promotional partnership." Then she said the development simply purchased zoo tickets as welcome gifts for its members and hired the zoo's outreach team twice, which hundreds of organizations do every year.
In 2003, a Tampa Tribune article termed the arrangement an "alliance,'' and said it was "conceived by Lindell and zoo president and chief executive officer Lex Salisbury."
This wasn't the first time Salisbury had entered into a loose agreement with a board member. Bill Blanchard, the former director of the zoo's executive committee, has been selling the zoo hay and making his east Pasco County ranch available for animal training for four or five years.
This arrangement existed without a written agreement until this fall, when Blanchard demanded it be put on the record as Salisbury faced controversy over perceived conflicts of interest.
Salisbury has been on a leave of absence for the past month while the city of Tampa audits his private dealings.
Lowry officials have acknowledged that Salisbury engaged in transactions with the zoo, which sold, traded, loaned and even donated 201 animals to Salisbury's personal collection.
Under Salisbury's supervision, two zoo parrots were loaned to Lindell's development to live at the outpost.
Once family pets, Eclectus parrots Chili Pepper and Scarlet were donated to the zoo in June 2003, and subsequently loaned to the outpost, said Peter Altman, a district manager at the Wildlife Lake Preserve.
Chili Pepper became stressed at the outpost, so under "some agreement with the zoo," Altman said, its director of operations Kelly Evans was allowed to take the bird home.
Evans left the development early this year, and with her, so did Scarlet. The neighborhood's newsletter reports that "since Kelly Evans was her handler (she would often sit in Kelly's lap like a small dog), Scarlet's papers were transferred to Kelly."
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So how do zoo officials feel about Lindell using the zoo's name to promote his development?
"We are flattered," Nelson said, "that Mr. Lindell dedicated to the zoo a corner of a nature-themed community center in the new neighborhood that his business developed."
Lindell said he consulted with the zoo on how to operate his nature center, and that he was simply providing the zoo a space to conduct outreach activities.
"I can't imagine it being a conflict of interest," he said. "It was a win-win deal."
According to its most recent IRS filings, the zoo has no written conflict-of-interest policy.
Santiago Corrada, a city staffer who sits on the zoo board, said the audit won't be limited to Salisbury's personal dealings with the zoo. Board member relationships also will be scrutinized.
The audit is expected to be released in the first half of December.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.