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Florida Matters: Selby Gardens, Nonprofits And Coronavirus

Not only small businesses and restaurants have been hurt by the pandemic. Many nonprofits are having an existential crisis, as donors hold on to their wallets and government help begins drying up.

One of the nonprofits affected is Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.  Florida Matters' Steve Newborn talks with president and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki about how the community is coming to the aid of nonprofits like hers.

You've been closed since March 17. Are you reopening with the governor's soft opening at 25 percent?

So we're actually looking at what we're calling our phase one reopening right now. And we anticipate being able to gradually reopen the outdoor spaces on both of our campuses. And we're just trying to think through all of the protocols and everything we need to do in order to provide the safest experience.

So I'd imagine you have a skeleton staff of people caring for the plants there, right?

We do and that's certainly an essential function. So we have our crew that's taking care of the world's best scientifically documented collections of orchids and bromeliads. But we do have a skeletal group that's been coming here.

I've read that Selby Gardens is losing $25,000 a day. That's a lot of money. So what are you all doing to cope?

The lucky thing is going into this closure, which of course was totally unexpected, Selby Gardens was really having a record breaking year. We were having record breaking attendance for our exhibit "Salvador Dali Gardens of the Mind." It's been one of our best received exhibits ever. So we were lucky to go into the closure having done extremely well this year. So that has helped to mitigate what we're going through. In addition, the philanthropic community has been unbelievably generous and has stepped forward with private contributions to offset the losses we are experiencing daily and earned revenue and that $25,000 a day really equates to admissions. memberships, cafe sales, retail sales. So it's been tough to be closed. But we've been lucky that we've been able to mitigate the severity of the challenge.

A lot of the smaller businesses say they basically have only a couple month’s reserves before the cash flow runs out. Are you a little better situated because of the philanthropic efforts and the help from the surrounding community as well?

We really are. And it's really because, and you might have seen over the last five years, we've transformed to being the living museum, which actually was recently trademarked. And the idea is that we have changing exhibits and experiences to garner repeat visitation. Because we never want people to say, 'Oh, we've been to Selby Gardens. It's beautiful.' as if they don't have a reason to come back. So since transforming to that operating model, five years ago to now, we've diversified all of our revenue streams. Earned revenue went up 70% led by a 55% increase in admissions, and a 67% increase in membership. And so because of that, we paid down the last of Selby Gardens’ debt last summer to a zero balance, which we're really proud of. And that certainly put us in a strong financial position heading into this crisis, for sure.

There's a lot of talk about a possible second wave. A lot of the big pandemics in the past have had second waves come on in the fall and there is talk of more closures coming if another epidemic hits. Are you prepared? Do you have any plans at the ready in case?

Jennifer Rominiecki
Credit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
Jennifer Rominiecki

Well, I think we're being really careful with our gradual reopening. You know, we want to see how the first wave of openness goes so we can do our best to provide the best safety protocols to our visitors and staff. So I think in this environment, you have to be nimble, you have to be ready to adapt. And that's the sort of mentality that we are in.

You were making some adaptations just as the epidemic hit. And even before, you were talking about merging with Historic Spanish Point. What's the reasoning behind that and what does Selby Gardens have to gain by this cooperation?

Well, so what happened is in February, which seems like a different world now, we were approached by leaders of Historic Spanish Point through the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, about the idea of a possible merger and Historic Spanish Point has had ongoing financial challenges with garnering sustainable revenues. So I was approached, I thought about it, and really realized the alignment between the two organizations was tremendous. I mean, really a natural alignment. Both oare Bayfront, both are natural preserves, both have similar operating models. I really looked at it as a way to enhance Selby Gardens’ footprint to not only study the air plants that we're so well known for, but really be a destination to study native Florida plants. Because that campus has 5,000 years of native Florida history. I really viewed it as a great chance to expand the footprint and reach of Selby Gardens work and also be a win-win with providing two locations for our members. So from day one of this merger, members of both sites have access to both locations. I think it's a great way to offer more to our constituency and they're very distinct campuses. So it's just a way to provide our constituency with more.

There's been a lot of talk about you expanding at your current site in Sarasota proper. There has been a little bit controversy with the expansion plans you all have proposed, you've come back with a scaled down plan. Give me a rundown of what you all are planning now.

Basically, what we did is when our master plan, the way it was proposed, was not accepted. We went through 40 hours of testimony from the public hearings and really listened and rolled up our sleeves and thought, 'what can we do to accommodate the concerns we heard? 'And so I'm happy to say that our compromise master plan protects the vision of what we set out to do and accomplishes our needs and at the same time, address the concerns of our neighbors. So for instance, we reduced the height of the parking structure by 40% to 38.5 feet and that was one of the biggest concerns we heard. We also changed the restaurant that was planned to be smaller and to operate within the hours of the botanical garden. And that was another concern that we heard. So in general, I think that the compromise master plan we've arrived at addresses Selby Gardens' needs at the downtown campus, but at the same time really addresses the concerns we heard. So we feel that it's a win-win for everyone. And we're hopeful that we will receive approval on this go round.

Is it on hold right now because of the pandemic - and is it on a timetable at all?

We have resubmitted our compromise master plans to the city and our application was deemed complete. However, public hearings in the city of Sarasota are currently on hold because of the pandemic and we are waiting to hear when our hearings will be scheduled. We will need a public hearing with the development review committee with the planning board and with the city commission and so we are anxiously awaiting hearing about when those dates will be scheduled or whether they can be held virtually. So as soon as we know more, we will share that.

Jennifer, at the beginning of the year, Selby Gardens was in the process of raising tens of millions of dollars towards these long-term capital projects. However, of course, with the spread of COVID-19 there is uncertainty on that along with everything else in life right now. What is the status of the funding for that, how it's been affected by the pandemic?

So basically, with the master plan for the downtown campus, we set out to raise $92 million. $72 million of that is for capital construction costs, and $20 million is for endowment for long-term sustainability. So the biggest portion of the project is the first phase with an estimated price tag of $42.5 million for construction. And I'm thrilled to sit here and say that we have raised $35 million, which is more than 80% of what is needed for phase one. And so luckily, we had secured that funding before the pandemic hit. And it's restricted solely to the purpose of phase one construction. So we feel that there'd be nothing better for the local economy then to get that project started, and to generate jobs and economic impact, since you know, we're sitting on these commitments that are ready to be injected into the community.

Sarasota has really embraced the arts for a long time. It's a major artistic community. A lot of donors, a lot of a lot of well-heeled donors. Talk a little bit about the larger fundraising picture there. How has this been affected by the pandemic, have people come out and said, 'I really want to help in your time of need,' or they kind of sitting on their pockets wondering what's going to happen to them right now?

I think this community, the Sarasota community, is unbelievably generous and philanthropic and they have come forward to support the nonprofits and the arts community in their time of need. The response to our Selby Gardens requests have been incredible. We, with the Virginia Toulmin Foundation, came forward with a matching grant to help us - which was already matched. The Steinwachs Family Foundation came forward with a matching challenge for our membership program, which has been matched. And then last week, you may have heard about our communities giving challenge, which is presented by the community foundation of Sarasota County, with support from the Patterson Foundation. And it's incredible. This is a day of giving, where the entire community is asked to support the nonprofit sector. And the giving challenge broke all records raising more than $18 million in 24 hours for something like 700 nonprofit organizations. So it's an incredible community and a very generous community. And because of that, you know, that's helping to safeguard the important work of the nonprofit sector in the arts and culture arena for sure.

How vital is that to your bottom line? Could you really survive without that kind of support?

No, it is critical to our bottom line. We are a privately owned nonprofit organization, and we rely heavily on the private sector. And as support from the government sector becomes tougher and tougher to garner, I think generally the nonprofit sector has become more and more reliant on the private sector. And it's been amazing to see the private sector step forward in the midst of this unprecedented crisis with the pandemic, for sure.

Do you think this might be, I don't know, maybe the harbinger of a new paradigm and the way fundraising takes place for nonprofits such as yours? More reliance on philanthropy and private donations and maybe less on government institutions?

Absolutely. And I think with Selby Gardens’ capital fundraising effort, we went into it relying heavily on the private sector and I think other organizations around the country are really going to be changing their funding mix. Really for survival. So at the end of the day, nonprofits are about being able to sustain their entities and about survival and the private sector support is critical to that picture for sure.

And that's probably one of the spurs for your acclaimed expansion right to get maybe more people in, you know, more paying visitors, restaurant income, that sort of thing to have kind of a more steady flow to, is that what you're looking at for the long term?

Absolutely. And I think every nonprofit needs to look at diversifying their revenue streams, the more that an institution or organization can earn, the more pressure that takes off of the private fundraising, and then the private fundraising dollars go further toward accomplishing the organization's mission. So I think that's been a key tenant to how we've been operating and to how Selby Gardens was able to retire its debt was really from that. And I think more and more organizations are going to need to look at that as we move past hopefully past this pandemic period.

What's the first thing you're going to do after you open? You have any plans? Are you just taking it day by day right now?

Take it day by day, but can't wait. I mean, I think that reopening and having the public back, we will not be taking it for granted. I think that our team in general is really excited to welcome everyone back, our teams communicating continuously via zoom and calls and all of that, and I think we're anxious to welcome everyone back.

We look forward to welcoming everyone back to our downtown campus and to historic Spanish Point. And we will be communicating on our website at selby.org about our reopening. And in the meantime, every day at 2 p.m., we are releasing digital content on our social media channels in order to bring Selby Gardens to you. So stay tuned so that you can virtually enjoy the Gardens until that day that we can reopen.

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Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.