As flowers sprung to life at the Idaho Botanical Garden in early March, the rejuvenating spirit of spring filled the air.
Then the nonprofit’s finances shriveled like petals in a time-lapse video.
The Garden closed for 35 days as part of Idaho’s “stay home” coronavirus order. Then all 12 summer concerts at the Outlaw Field were axed, vaporizing hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential revenue.
Memberships plummeted by half. Staff was laid off. Admissions are at a 13-year low.
A Boise sanctuary since 1984, the Idaho Botanical Garden faces an uncertain future. Although it remains open under budget cuts and slightly reduced hours, it’s losing money every month, executive director Erin Anderson said.
A fundraising effort was launched Aug. 1 with a goal of reaching at least $150,000 by Sept. 30.
Without an influx of cash to help bridge the gap to spring 2021, it might be forced to close temporarily until the pandemic wanes, Anderson said. From April to the end of December, the Garden is looking at $800,000 to $900,000 in lost revenue, she said.
“While we have been happy to support efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” she wrote in a plea on the Garden’s website, “the financial implications over the past five months have been devastating.”
Word is still getting out. But so far, community response could use a shot of Miracle-Gro.
“It feels hard,” Anderson admitted in a phone interview. “Since we’ve launched the campaign, we’ve received $20,000 in sponsorships and donations combined.”
Buying a membership, which starts at $49, is a great way to preserve the Garden’s continued health, she said. Corporate sponsorships also will be crucial. Membership perks include free general admission to the Garden, the ability to purchase concert tickets in advance, exclusive admission to member-only events, and discounts on education classes and in the store — which is currently closed because of the coronavirus.
WINTER GARDEN AGLOW
One wake-up call that might loosen purse strings? Winter Garden aGlow suddenly is a brightly lit question mark.
Not only has the breathtaking light display been a Boise holiday tradition for 22 years, but it’s a major piece of the Garden’s budget. Last year’s event, which started at Thanksgiving, as usual, featured about 480,000 lights. “We can’t get there if we can’t pay the people to do it,” Anderson said. “We start setting up lights in September.”
“Worst-case scenario is no Winter Garden aGlow at all. Best-case scenario is we can offer at half to a quarter of the typical capacity, if we can find that sweet spot on the return of investment — the cost to get the event up and going, to set up the lights, to get it staffed, all of these things.
“The big fear is we’re going to make this decision, and then we’ll get to November or December and then we’ll be completely shut down. And what a shutdown for the Garden means is that we will close our gates and furlough staff.”
The personnel level already has been pruned vigorously, even as local Great Garden Escape concerts and other functions continue at a reduced capacity. The Garden typically employs 35 year-round staffers — around 45 in summer — in addition to utilizing volunteers. “Right now, we have 19 staff members,” Anderson said.
Aside from events, classes and other activities, just keeping the 15-acre site running costs between $750,000 and $1 million annually, she said. Letting things grow like a neglected backyard is not a desirable option. “We have millions of dollars invested in this site over the past 35 years,” she said. “We cannot let those plant collections suffer.”
In the end, Anderson said, she is hopeful — even if she knows that raising $150,000 might be an uphill journey.
“Once we see how much funding has come in, by Sept. 31, we will determine a plan for how we will be able to continue to operate,” she said. “ ... It could be closing a few days a week. It could be closing for two months instead of for five months. Everything is a moving target right now for us as it has to do with financials.
“ ... I think when you are a staple in the community like the Botanical Garden, people can’t imagine a time or a space without it. And it becomes very easy to dismiss the struggle. It becomes very easy to say, ‘Well, the Garden’s going to be fine. They’ve been here for a long time.’
“But cultural arts organizations, we were the first to be shut down and will be the last to be opened completely. Across the board, everybody is suffering. And it’s also the last to be funded, because people don’t see it as a basic need.”
Anderson hopes Boiseans will view a membership as a mutually beneficial partnership. In the often homebound landscape of COVID-19, it truly is a special place.
“We are providing a service where families and individuals can come into a space safely and enjoy the great outdoors,” she said. “They can enjoy our koi ponds. They can enjoy our Children’s Adventure Garden. They can wander up through our Lewis and Clark garden. And they receive those benefits all year round.
“So it’s helping create sustainability of our program, and in addition, it’s giving them an opportunity to enjoy something they’re missing out on — and getting that sense of community as well.”
▪ Online: idahobotanicalgarden.org. Address: 2355 Old Penitentiary Road. Phone: (208) 343-8649.