Mobile Botanical Gardens likely closing in September

Mobile County

MOBILE, Ala. — (WKRG) A letter sent Sunday morning says the gardens will close next month while they look for a sustainable funding model.

“As the fall of 2019 approaches, that hand-to-mouth existence has reached a tipping point. MBG cannot continue on this path. Its future depends on the MBG owner and stakeholders doing the hard work of creating a sustainable funding model to preserve this beautiful 100-acre resource for our community,” the letter says. The letter urges people to contact city representatives to save and or better fund the facility. They’re also calling for donations.

The letter says:

As early as midday Friday some of you began to hear the news — and wondered can it be true?
YES, the Mobile Botanical Gardens that we all treasure and love is facing closure in September. Public admissions to the Gardens will discontinue in September as possible solutions are sought. The grounds will be maintained as long as possible.

For 45 years, the Mobile Botanical Gardens has kept the doors open and made huge improvements without a sustainable funding model. As the fall of 2019 approaches, that hand-to-mouth existence has reached a tipping point. MBG cannot continue on this path. Its future depends on the MBG owner and stakeholders doing the hard work of creating a sustainable funding model to preserve this beautiful 100-acre resource for our community.
Right now – Mobile Botanical Gardens asks for your help in expressing your support for improved funding from the City. Please write Mayor Sandy Stimpson, your City Council member, and the MBG Board and Staff leadership to ask for their commitment to work on a sustainable funding model for the MBG. (Their contact information is listed at the end of the fact summary below.)
Read on — some or all — to better understand.
The Mobile Botanical Gardens was established in 1974 on City leased land in the heart of the Spring Hill community and consists of 35 acres of Longleaf pine conservation area and 65 acres of special gardens and nature trails.
A history of MBG, written by Maarten Van Der Giessen, follows this fact summary.
Over 7,000 hours of volunteer support annually for MBG operations, plant sales and special events (equivalent of 3.5 full-time volunteer staff)
Membership contributions total $60,000 in 2019. 185 new members (a 15% increase since 2018) have joined MBG in the last 12 months.
Mobile City Councilwoman Gina Gregory (District 7) has supported MBG by using community investment funds of $312,019 to cover funding gaps and special capital needs over the past 3 years.
MBG Partnerships include the American Horticultural Society, Mobile County Master Gardeners, Gulf Coast Herb Society, International Camellia Society, Alabama Camellia Society, Camellia Society of South Alabama, The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Forestry Commission, Longleaf Alliance, Coastal Alabama Botanical Artists Association, Writers in Nature, Mobile Area Backyard Chicken Club, Palm Society, Girl Scouts of South Alabama, (just to name a few)
Over the years MBG has benefitted from funding support from JL Bedsole Foundation, Glaze Foundation, Monte L. Moorer Charitable Trust, Munson Foundation, M. W. Smith Jr. Foundation, Crampton Trust, Sybil Smith Trust, Mary Josephine Larkins Foundation, Daniel Foundation, Martin Family Foundation, Days Trust, AL Forests Forever Foundation, Lillian McGowin Foundation, Hearin/Chandler Foundation, PNC Bank, Regions Bank, Cole Foundation Trust, CFSA (Community Foundation of South Alabama, and Lillian Woolford Charitable Trust (to name a few)
MBG has never looked more beautiful or had more active programming than it does now. The states of Georgia, Missouri and Texas all have botanical gardens of similar sizes and the cost of their operations ranges from $1.6M to $42M (yes, forty-two million). In the state of Alabama – Huntsville Botanical at 112 acres has an operating budget of over $3M. The MBG annual budget of $500,000 is quite lean by comparison for the annual upkeep of 106 acres and the public programming offered.
4,000 non-member adults from all parts of the US and internationally paid $5 admission to the MBG design gardens in 2019 ($20,000) – their children under 12 entered for free. Reciprocal program visitors from all over the US visit free of admission and represent another 3500 folks and their kids. And we can’t say how many enjoy the trails of the 35 acre Longleaf we manage — open free to the public 365 a year.
Thousands of visitors come to the MBG each year to attend events, classes, plant sales, visit the gift shop, enjoy a Friday lunch or walk through the garden rooms and collections
Numerous clubs and organizations meet and hold events at MBG: The MBG Botanical Art Sketch Club, Writers in Nature, Mobile County Master Gardeners, The Girlscouts of South Alabama, Camellia Society of South Alabama, Gulf Coast Herb Society, Palm Society, Mobile Area Backyard Chicken Club – just to name a few.
This 100-acre property is owned by the City of Mobile.
In 1974, the city of Mobile entered into a lease with the South Alabama Botanical and Horticultural Society to create and operate the Mobile Botanical Gardens.
The non-profit MBG has made over $1.2 million in capital improvements (3 buildings, multiple greenhouses, parking lots, over 700 linear feet of walkways and pathways, and the planting of thousands of specimens on the grounds) over the last 45 years.
The City contribution to MBG began at $5,000 per year in 1974 and remains at that level today, after 45 years.
The City alone receives an average of $9,867 in annual tax receipts based on sales of plants and other merchandise at MBG.
On behalf of its citizens, the City of Mobile owns our version of Central Park and pays $96 per week towards its upkeep. Other City-owned assets are supported at much higher levels by the City.
Operating costs for the Gardens are $9600 per week, of which the City provides $96.
The MBG Board and Director continue to ask the city to increase their funding position from the current 1% to a 30% position (from the current $5,000 to $150,000), reflecting City ownership of this horticultural jewel in the heart of Mobile.
With the City’s encouragement, MBG took over an adjacent 6 acres in 2019 (former City greenhouses) that had to be cleared and rehabilitated through the haul-off of eight 30-yard dumpsters of debris, removal of derelict buildings and the stabilizing of the area with tons of sand and rock at a cost of $23,000 to which the City contributed $0.
MBG annually raises upwards of $250,000 (through Plant Sales, Membership, admissions, events, tours & classes, gift shop and Friday lunches) and receives contributions in the neighborhood of $100,000
Our annual costs include: $92,000 for collections maintenance, mowing, mulch, fertilizer, fungicides and herbicides; $130,000 for personnel to maintain the grounds; $110,000 for operations personnel; $24,000 payroll taxes; $33,000 for commercial insurance, licenses and taxes; $50,000 for utilities and facilities maintenance/support; $18,000 for greenhouse expenses; $25,000 for marketing, educational signage and public outreach; $18,000 unforeseen due to lightning, vandalism, other.
Funding Gap: $150,000
Funding Gap Consequence: MBG director and non-grounds staff have foregone their salaries to keep the gardens operating and maintained at a high level for as many as 8 weeks annually. Volunteers and donors have stepped up at crucial times by making additional gifts. This is not a sustainable funding model.
Longleaf Pine Treasure Forest, one of the last remaining stands in the city and the largest urban fire managed in the south
Millie McConnell Rhododendron Garden
Dr. Eugene Aromi Azalea Legacy Garden
Kosaku Sawada Winter Garden of camellias designated as an International Camellia Society Garden of Excellence
John Allen Smith Japanese Maple Memorial Garden
Areas dedicated to pollinators, fragrance and texture, herbs, hiking trails.
Arts play a role in the Garden mission where painters, writers, and photographers find inspiration.
Two groups affiliated with Mobile Botanical Garden.
A Garden Sketch club with botanical art classes taught by Derek Norman, a renowned botanical artist.
A writing group led by Alabama Poet Laureate emeritus Dr. Sue Walker, Inspiration is found for painters, writers, photographers.
Today, the City holds a 100% ownership position and a 1% annual funding position in the Mobile Botanical Gardens. Community funders, members, volunteers, individual donors, and staff going without pay cannot sustain the operations of the garden without the City of Mobile consistently participating at a higher level financially.
Closing Mobile Botanical Gardens and leaving 100 acres in the heart of Mobile uncared for and unsecured is not a good option for our community. Discussions need to take place between the City and representatives of the MBG to secure the future of this rich historical asset which belongs to the city of Mobile and her residents.
As E.O. Wilson has observed, “The city of Mobile sits in the middle of the biologically richest part of North America.” Surely preservation of these gardens, their longleaf pine forest, and the thousands of specimens that have been planted there for public education and enjoyment is achievable for our community.

–Letter sent by Executive Director Robin Krchak to members Sunday morning

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