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Cypress Gardens deal takes key step

A nonprofit conservation group in San Francisco met a deadline Thursday to save Cypress Gardens, allowing a Georgia theme park owner to take over one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions next month.

The Trust for Public Land's national board of directors approved the deal that would allow the conservation group's Florida office to exercise its option to buy the 150-acre park known for its botanical gardens, water ski shows and Southern belles in hoop skirts and parasols.

Under the deal, Kent Buescher, who owns Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., has agreed to buy 130 acres for $7-million. Included in the agreement is an antique fire truck Buescher was adamant about owning. The deal will close Feb. 24. "That's when the deeds get exchanged and the money changes hands," said Greg Chelius, director of the Trust for Public Land's Florida office.

Cypress Gardens closed in April and laid off about 500 workers. Polk County officials agreed this week to buy the historic 30-acre core of the park for $2.5-million.

For the deal to go forward, the Florida Cabinet and Gov. Jeb Bush must approve the purchase of an $11-million conservation easement by the state. Bush and the Cabinet meet Tuesday.

The park could reopen as soon as Memorial Day weekend, said Sara Sumner of Wild Adventures.

The new owner plans to invest $35-million over the next year and a half to refurbish the gardens, buildings and build a new entrance. Buescher also plans to add roller coasters, bring back the ski shows and schedule concerts.

"Today was a big step in acquiring the Gardens," Sumner said.