After years of wilting, gardens strengthen roots with help from MDS
Like a flower pushing up from parched soil, a rebirth of sorts is occurring at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens. In the past eight months, workers have ripped bindweed from gardens, repaired a faulty irrigation system and trained a scrutinizing eye over the nonprofit group’s books.
Workers such as Shannon Orr, Dale Clements, Don Wens and Don Irwin are a big part of the solution to bring the ailing gardens back from the brink of closure.
“We’ve done a little bit of everything,” Shannon Orr said proudly while installing new interpretive signs at the gardens, 655 Struthers Ave. “I like to work.”
The four workers are clients of Mesa Developmental Services. Thanks to a partnership between MDS and the gardens, the future of the gardens is looking rosier than ever.
For years, the gardens suffered from a revolving door of executive directors, mounting debt and spotty public relations. During the gardens’ latest plea for a hand-up late last year, MDS offered to step in. While it’s not uncommon for nonprofit groups to coordinate efforts, the role MDS took on with the gardens goes far beyond a helping hand. MDS agreed to take over operations of the gardens for a six-month period, and then extended it three more months. That time will be up in August, after which MDS officials will decide how they want to proceed.
Since taking over, MDS has dedicated some staff to straightening up operations, bolstering marketing and investing in a remodel of the gift shop. The gardens had long been running in the red upwards of $100,000, but over the course of the past year with MDS’ help, those numbers are now in the black, to the tune of about $15,000, said Ed Wieland, MDS vice president of finance, who also has been tasked with acting as treasurer for the gardens.
While the relationship may be the saving grace for the ailing gardens, it’s more of a head scratcher as to what the gardens provide for MDS.
MDS Executive Director Jeff Nichols cites other relationships between gardens and agencies that cater to developmentally disabled people. Besides, he said, as MDS comes off a successful campaign to quickly build three group homes to accommodate the closure of the Grand Junction Regional Center’s skilled-nursing unit, helping out the gardens is small potatoes.
“It’s not totally off the map,” Nichols said. “This pales in comparison. Here, we’ve just got weeds to pull.”
MORE EXPOSURE FOR CLIENTS
A number of the 720 clients served by MDS work in the community every day. Clients craft goods such as birdhouses, Adirondack chairs and candle holders and sell them at Uniquely Yours, 443 Main St. They create a number of products in their wood shop. They take on work orders and fulfill contracts through Labor Solutions, the vocational division of MDS. Other crews perform landscaping work.
Having clients work at the gardens offers a new opportunity for interactions with the public and for them to test out a variety of skills, said Kristie Braaten, vice president of quality enhancement and resource coordination with MDS.
At the gardens, clients can work in the gift shop, perform landscaping or assist with special events. Workers are paid minimum wage while working at the gardens. They earn money on a per piece basis while constructing other wood-working projects.
“That’s something that we really want to capitalize on, bridging the gaps between individuals who do have disabilities and those who don’t,” Braaten said. “What we do is fine tuning that psychological orientation to understand how everybody fits in.”
Although the partnernship is in its early stages, MDS officials are tossing around some ideas to incorporate clients into the gardens model, while inviting the community in. That could include opening a cafe to be staffed by clients, starting a vegetable and herb garden in which the food supplements MDS’ group homes and renting bikes to better connect visitors with the nearby Colorado Riverfront Trail. Only recently, under MDS management, the gardens’ gift shop began offering some refreshments, which have been a hit with hungry walkers and visitors, Braaten said.
The remodeled space has now started earning money. Previously, the gardens had always lost money on the gift shop portion of operations. Braaten said MDS is looking at how botanical gardens in other areas such as Denver make a go of operations, and MDS hopes to piggyback on some of those success stories.
“The question is how do we bring in concessions,” she said. “We’re looking at licensing and how we can provide additional resources like lunch or some sort of food options.”
WHAT WENT WRONG
Every year for years, it seemed, staff at the gardens would publicly lament about how the organization was flailing and on the verge of closure. The pleas for help followed a similar trend. The organization stressed that it needed cash donations or help from the city fast to survive operations another day, week or month. Sometimes help was needed when the utility bills skyrocketed.
Utility work in 2003 that preceded construction of Riverside Parkway drove away visitors, staff said. That same year, the irrigation system to the gardens was compromised. After a series of pleas for help, Ashley Furniture Homestore, which has since gone out of business in Grand Junction, offered its assistance with marketing and paying down some costs. Over the years, the city stepped in to offer in-kind services, and a couple times city councilors begrudgingly offered cash assistance.
Gardens board president Jon Schler makes no excuses for the gardens’ management. In the past, the gardens operated on about $300,000 a year, an amount that cover things like salaries for an executive director and staff and heating bills, which could run up to $3,000 a month. Simply keeping a stock of butterflies in the Butterfly House cost $600 to $700 a month, Schler said.
In addition to the regular costs, fresh faces to the organization always wanted to alter, tear down or add new gardens. As new gardens were being made, maintenance waned on other plots.
“That’s the one thing Jeff said when he came in: ‘What the heck are you doing building another garden?’ ” Schler said. “It is a business. It is a good place for therapy. It has all these things, but if the basic site isn’t taken care of, what’s the use?”
Schler said board members initially protested temporarily discontinuing butterflies in the pavilion. While MDS is working on licensing to eventually get the butterflies back, board members were tasked with taking a long look at the costs to house and display the fluttery creatures, Schler said.
“Without sponsors, you could never get enough people in the door to afford it,” he said. “You’ve got to have the temperature at 80 degrees in the winter. It’s too expensive. People think seeing butterflies in the winter is a nice idea, but 90 percent of them didn’t go there.”
Visitor numbers over the years to the gardens are spotty. In the early 2000s, Gardens staff said the place received more than 20,000 visits a year. After closing for a few months this winter and opening in April, monthly visits hovered around 1,500 people. Like before, most of the visitors arrive for free days, which are Tuesdays.
Since MDS took over operations, it has spent about $6,000 to $7,000 on plants. Under board leadership, the gardens would be lucky to spend $300 to $400 a year on plants, Schler said.
Now, Schler said, MDS is working with board members to create a master plan for the future of the gardens. And Nichols’ reputation and reach extends further into the community than gardens’ board members and staff could have achieved, Schler said.
“I’ve learned that working with small nonprofits, they don’t have the expertise,” Schler said about the gardens’ mistakes in the past. “What (MDS) has been doing is building continuity. Jeff spends a lot of time talking to people. He does a lot of bigger things in the community.”