After effectively closing the gates for good in 2019, the board of the Mobile Botanical Gardens is using a new contract from the city and an endowment opportunity for a new lease on life at the 106-acre facility.
The city has agreed to give the gardens $150,000 per year for the next three to five years to help bolster the board’s $500,000 budget, President Dr. Jack Di Palma said. The new contract is a huge boost over what the city and county were contributing together.
“Our operating budget is about a half a million dollars per year … to manage 106 acres and four employees,” Di Palma said. “Of that half-million dollars, unlike other nonprofits in the area, we raised most of that ourselves. At the time, the city’s contribution to this was $5,000 per year.”
The county chips in $4,000 per year, Director Robin Krchak added.
Krchak notes before the infusion of city money, the share of funding from the municipalities to the gardens was disproportionately low when compared to other garden attractions around the country.
“It was way out of balance,” she said. “Right now, we’re running on about 60 percent funding from our activities.”
The gardens are surviving on admissions, memberships and programs, Di Palma said. This includes the popular plant sales, Krchak said.
“Plant sales are our most recognizable event,” she said.
Before the city “stepped up,” as Di Palma said, the board also relied on discretionary funds from District 7 Councilwoman Gina Gregory, who gave $150,000 total over the last four years.
“Gina Gregory is our fairy godmother,” Di Palma said. “She’s a saint.”
Di Palma mentioned other cities where municipal funding makes up a bigger share of botanical gardens’ budgets. For example, he said, Huntsville, St. Louis and San Antonio, Texas, all give more funding to botanical gardens than Mobile.
In San Antonio specifically, Di Palma said, the county funds the entirety of the gardens’ $1.6 million budget to manage 38 acres.
“I was over there [and] I met with their executive director — everything is paid for by the municipality,” Di Palma said. “The county pays for everything.”
The new contract doesn’t just give the gardens funding for nothing, Di Palma said. The board has to show it can get on good financial footing if it wants the support to last longer. Di Palma said the contract allows for funding, but the “last couple of years” of funding is dependent upon the facility’s financial strength.
“Basically, the philosophy of the contract was that the city is offering us financial support as a bridge to our financial security,” he said. “Then they are going to pick up — the grounds and the buildings all belong to the city — so, they’re going to pick up building maintenance, they’re going to pick up insurance and utilities.”
The city will also help market the gardens “to a degree,” Krchak said.
The city’s contribution and the gardens’ commitment to financial sustainability have opened up new funding opportunities through a $500,000 endowment from the Community Foundation of South Alabama, Di Palma said.
While it starts at $500,000, the Community Foundation’s Wayne Denson Fund has also provided the board an opportunity at another $250,000 in matching funds, Di Palma said. That means the board could make the endowment worth as much as $1 million.
“And what’s important about that is it was contingent upon us getting the municipal funding and getting secure in our finances,” Board Vice President Stephen Clements said. “So, we could’ve lost that potential $1 million endowment if we hadn’t gotten the ship right.”
The matching funds mean the gardens’ board must find ways to raise $250,000. One idea, Di Palma said, is to offer naming rights on many of the facility’s features.
“We’ve already made progress with some naming opportunities for the other $250,000,” Di Palma said.
The board is “dreaming big” when it comes to ways to use the money and ideas to get more visitors through the gates.
“You’ve got to have a vision or people don’t join in,” Clements said.
Di Palma said the board would like to enhance the gardens’ entryway with an entry building bookstore and cafe, “like other gardens have.”
“I want this to be a destination attraction for Mobile,” Di Palma said. “We don’t have that many, but I want this to continue to be a destination attraction for Mobile and a place where people will want to become members and people will want to come here and spend an afternoon.”
Clements also has a plan to bring more visitors through the gates and it starts with attracting school field trips. The gardens already attract older people, he said, but it’s time to show a younger generation that the facility can be a fun place to visit.
“One of the things I really want to stress in the future is more of an educational component,” Clements said. “I don’t think most folks realize what a gem they have sitting right smack in the middle of Mobile.”
The gardens are a showcase of biodiversity, board member Adam Chupp said. That not only means there is a wide variety of plant species, but also certain animal species like the gopher tortoise.
“We have a healthy, viable [gopher tortoise] population in this pine forest here,” Chupp, a biology professor at the University of South Alabama, said. “There are trails through there and you can walk and see the burrows and these burrows are home to — they’ve documented — up to 300 species that cohabitate with these tortoises. From a botanical perspective, it’s a museum, a living museum.”
In addition to one of the largest, fire-managed, urban longleaf pine forests in the country, Krchak said the facility is home to one of seven International Camellia Society gardens in the U.S.
“So, it’s a well-regarded collection,” she said. “Our azaleas [and] Japanese maple [gardens are the] largest in the Southeast. The breadth of the collection, the significance, that’s more of what we want to educate the community about.”
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