For many people, a conservatory is where Col. Mustard fell victim to a candlestick in the old board game Clue. For fans of the century-old Volunteer Park Conservatory, it is more than that: a botanical treasure house, an historic landmark, an essential part of the Olmsted park legacy.
Still, people were alarmed that murder was afoot. A story in the Seattle Times in January, "End of the road for the Volunteer Park Conservatory?", left the impression that the beloved historic greenhouse on Capitol Hill was doomed due to budget cuts.
At a public meeting on March 7, Seattle Parks and Recreation Department senior planner Kathleen Conner quickly moved to calm things down. The city has no intention of shuttering or tearing down the Conservatory (it's a multiple landmark), but is looking for a more "sustainable" financial model. Translation: the 2013 budget is a nightmare, big cuts to the general fund are looming, everyone is being asked to cut back. The city wants to have the option of cutting all or some of the $450,000 or so a year it spends to keep the Conservatory open and operating. Can costs be cut? Can revenues be increased?
It's a familiar game of both financial reality and situational extortion: pick a beloved icon, declare it in jeopardy, and get its fan-based riled up enough to cough-up the money to get the city off the budget hook. When these things are proposed, the discussion takes place in the context of "what can we do to save it," rather than "how to we make the city pay for this essential service?" In other words, the budget battle is half-won by merely posing the dilemma.
Still, it's a legitimate question. Unlike many park amenities, the conservatory can and does generate revenues (shop and plant sales, admissions donations). Can it do better? Can it move toward being self-sustaining?
Many citizens who came to the meeting at the Montlake Community Center were hoping to hear what kind of options the city was putting on the table. But the Parks department isn't ready to do that. They've hired a Tucson, Arizona-based consultant, Rick Daley, who's an expert on running botanical gardens and has consulted for many across the country (see the list here). His job is to make recommendations about how the Volunteer Park Conservatory can survive and thrive. His report won't be ready for another month or more, and he's in the input phase.
The format for the meeting shifted from a quick overview by Conner and Daley to being broken up into discussion groups— called "world cafe" — where citizens brainstormed with giant notepads and answered questions about why the Conservatory was important, and ideas for how to keep it going. "Think outside the box," they were told. There are no "crazy ideas."
But without being much better informed, it was hard for people to come up with much that was terribly useful, and it will be interesting to find out if consultant Daley honestly heard even one original notion. The whole exercise seemed to operate on the idea that informing people too much at this phase would somehow taint the public input process. But without specifics about how the conservatory operates, or what ones in other cities have done to keeping going, it was a bit like the blind leading the uninformed.
Big scoop: Of the scores of people who came to the meeting, they love the Conservatory for its plants and architecture. They're willing for the most part to consider an admission fee, most people don't want to see much change, but some are willing to consider adding amenities like a cafe. Oh, and the Conservatory should do a better job of fundraising. Some folks also like the idea of major corporate donors or putting someone's name on it. Since it's a hot-house, one participant suggested that Amazon would be a great sponsor.
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