As plants bloom in Leach Botanical Gardens, supporters fear an uncertain financial future

The city’s purse strings are being drawn tightly, choking funding for this outer East Portland horticultural treasure — Portland’s only botanical garden. Learn what advice volunteer supporters were given,

Portland Parks & Recreation planning supervisor David Yamashita led the panel discussion held, ostensibly, to help Leach Botanical Garden volunteers get ideas of how to operate the facility with lower city support.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The faces of Leach Botanical Gardens’ volunteers looked gloomy on the Saturday morning on which they were meeting, a few weeks ago.

Portland Parks & Recreation planning supervisor for the Gardens, David Yamashita, planted his message as tactfully as possible: “You will get no additional money from the City of Portland. You need to look at additional revenue sources.”

Yamashita suggested the group consider charging an entry fee, or finding a major benefactor.

“No, we don’t charge an entry fee,” protested Barbara Hamilton, a longtime volunteer. “Volunteers do a great deal of work to keep this garden running. This garden is needed here in outer SE Portland‚ especially now that the city is loading our neighborhoods with low-income housing.”

Yamashita responded that the “Friends Group” needs to start making plans. “You’ll be more effective at fundraising than we can be in the [PP&R] bureau.”

To help the Friends of Leach Botanical Gardens gather ideas about fund raising and management, Yamashita and his staff arranged for representatives for four other area gardens to be present to share their experience.

Read on and learn what the panel told Leach Garden volunteers …

Scott Vergara, Berry Botanic Garden, and Gloria Lee, Portland Classical Chinese Garden, tell about their respective horticultural operations.

The Berry Botanic Garden
The executive director of this garden, Scott Vergara, told how Berry Botanic Garden was originally a private estate, located in the Dunthorpe neighborhood between Lake Oswego and Lewis & Clark College.

“Our 30-year-old garden is virtually hidden,” Vergara began. “A ‘friends group’ has preserved its 6 acres.”

Berry faces unique restrictions, being located in a residential neighborhood. “We have no sign, extremely limited parking, and we are open by appointment only.”

The garden, Vergara said, arises from a small endowment; it gets no public resources. “Because of our seed bank, we have contracts with federal and state agencies. We collect seeds and monitor reproduction programs.”

Additionally, gate receipts, small gift shop sales, donations, grant writing, and hosting the occasional event rounds out their $500,000. “We have seven fulltime workers, but we need nine. We have 180 to 200 volunteers a year.”

Turning to structure, Vergara commented that while “bounder boards” [of directors] are necessary; “fundraising boards” are critical. “Operations boil down to two questions — those dealing with money and mission. How do you get your funding? What is your mission?”

As time goes on, he added, the mission must evolve to meet the current needs of the organization. “A clear mission helps direct the garden; too tightly defined a mission becomes too restrictive,” Vergara elucidated. “A mission must be relevant.”

With aging volunteers and board members, Vergara said one of their most critical questions is how to attract younger people to help in the garden.

Portland Classical Chinese Garden
Next to offer insight was Portland Classical Chinese Garden’s executive director, Gloria Lee.

“It’s about leadership to survival,” Lee began. “We are a totally self-sustaining entity. 80% of our visitors are from outside the city and state.”

Lee explained that their unrestricted income is from ticket sales. “But, it wasn’t enough. We hired a development director; now we’re blessed with two grants — one for horticulture, and another for ‘East-West outreach education’. For us, we are a living museum; not a botanical garden.”

The Chinese Garden’s board of directors, Lee said, will consider a new project only if its funding source is also presented. With membership growth stalled, they look to grants to increase their funding. “Our garden employs 22 full-time people,” commented Lee.

“The board members now drive the fund raising and membership activity,” Lee explained. “They hold phone-a-thons, and undertake other fund raising efforts.”

After meeting payroll, Lee told the group, their second largest budget item is advertising and promotion. “My fear is that if you become a destination, and charge for entry, you may have to budget a considerable amount for advertising. This year’s Chinese New Year Celebration advertising promotion cost $22,000.”

Lee recommended hiring staff members with multiple talents. “The secret to success is to remember that it takes passion and stamina to keep going, year after year.”

Portland Japanese Garden’s Stephen Bloom, and the Jenkins Estate’s supervisor, Allen Wells, shared their expertise with Friends of Leach Gardens.

Portland Japanese Garden
Speaking for the Portland Japanese Garden was its executive director, Stephen Bloom.

Bloom left us, and the Leach volunteers, a bit hazy about the Japanese Garden’s financial relationship with the City of Portland.

“We have 12 acres leased from the city,” Bloom stated. “The original lease was for a dollar a year, but the rate has been adjusted. Work in partnership with the city. We don’t get cash from the city. Government funding is never guaranteed.”

A Leach volunteer interjected, “But the Leach family DONATED our land to the city. It isn’t leased, or an in-kind arrangement.”

Of the Japanese Garden’s $2.4 million budget, $1.2 million comes from gate ticket sales generated by a quarter-million visitors, continued Bloom. “We work in conjunction with the city, but don’t depend on the City of Portland for funding.”

This garden has 24 fulltime and 8 part-time employees.

Bloom said they operate under two boards of directors: a Society/Policy board and an Operations/Endowment board.

“Two years ago, we bumped admission from $6 to $8 per person. As a world-class attraction, the attendance has still increased, because we focus on quality. A quality garden drives people to your institution.”

Bloom’s advice: “Sooner, than later, make a strategic plan. You need a ‘road map’ to know where you’re going. Make it inclusive, so everybody buys in. Staff members change; board members change ‚Äì the plan must stay consistent.”

The Jenkins Estate
Finally, Allen Wells, the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District coordinator for the Jenkins Estate in Tualatin, spoke.

“Much of Washington County is made up of special service districts,” Wells began. “The district purchased the Jenkins Estate, a 68-acre parcel scheduled to become condos and offices. The district floated a bond and secured the estate.”

Jenkins has been “run on a shoestring”, Wells said. “We have substantial reliance on volunteers and an advisory committee.”

The district focused attention on restoring the buildings,” said Wells. “Each structure has a small garden. We spent the early years discovering what was planted in those gardens.”

Because the estate didn’t come with an endowment, Wells described their facility as a “wedding chapel” on the weekends, and during the week, a corporate retreat. “Our restoration and gardening had to almost be done on a ‘swing shift’, due to the rentals.”

Leach volunteers frustrated
After all the presentations, Ernie Francisco protested, “You are all west side intuitions. The city was started on the West side. There is business and industry there to support your work. We don’t have businesses here. We feel the city needs to look at institutions, like Leach Gardens, as resources that serve the city as a whole.”

Francisco continued, “The other thing is this: As a volunteer member here, education of individuals and classes has been the overriding emphasis of our work here. You have different purposes.”

Representatives of the other gardens talked about their educational efforts, and said they saw little difference in that portion of their missions.

Finally, longtime Leach Garden volunteer Barbara Hamilton piped up: “We volunteer about 13,000 hours a year. This labor must be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars.

“The City keeps promising things, like a furnace and a new roof on the Annex ‚Äì but it never comes. We’re still fighting to get another power pole, so we can get more electricity brought into the buildings, and generate income from winter rentals.”

The Chinese Garden’s Lee responded, “You must find one individual who will champion your cause. Portland has had millions of challenges. And, there are many champions.”

We couldn’t see who made the comment, but someone sitting close to the front of the room suggested, “There are many wealthy people in nearby neighborhoods like Eastmoreland — why don’t you get them involved?”

Realizing that Eastmoreland is more than 100 blocks distant from Leach Botanical Gardens, Leach volunteers just rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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