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.
Daley made the rounds of the groups and answered some questions. And in the course of the evening, some data emerged and he offered some background that was useful. One piece of encouraging news: Of the three or four major conservatories threatened with closure over the last five to seven years, all are still going.Many conservatories are run by cities, often in conjunction with other botanical parks and gardens. Public-private operations are also common: part city, part non-profit. Seattle has models in the zoo and aquarium, and the Conservatory has an active group, Friend of the Conservatory of Volunteer Park. That group was formed to restore and save the Conservatory structure in 1980, when it was so rickety it had to be closed during windy weather. It's in much better shape now.
A challenge: Seattle's is an outlier in terms of size. It's tiny, only about 7,000 square feet under the glass (The Bloedel in Vancouver, B.C., is twice as big, another tiny jewel is Tacoma's Seymour Botanical Conservatory). Many conservatories are in the 20,000 to 40,000 square foot range, meaning they have more room for things like special events, music, and other activities. Volunteer Park is no Chihuly Garden and Glass (see disclosures below). Its narrow aisles can barely handle wheelchairs and walkers. It has other limitations: no room for a ticket booth, for example, or a larger shop. The admission donations (suggested: $6 for adults) collect only about $35,000 per year. That means many folks aren't paying: the conservatory gets an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 visitors per year.
Many conservatories are run by cities, often in conjunction with other botanical parks and gardens. Public-private operations are also common: part city, part non-profit. Seattle has models in the zoo and aquarium, and the Conservatory has an active group, Friend of the Conservatory of Volunteer Park. That group was formed to restore and save the Conservatory structure in 1980, when it was so rickety it had to be closed during windy weather. It's in much better shape now.
There are ways of overcoming the lack of ticket revenue and booth space. Daley said that an electronic ticket dispenser, like the downtown parking meters, is one option. Maybe parks could issue a "Good to Go" or Orca pass? One challenge is whether the Conservatory would need to "go big" to have a viable, self-sustaining future. Can it afford to stay small?
It's interesting how quickly some people — not plant lovers — see the structure itself as the jewel, and would rather see it emptied and turned into a community center or event space at the expense of its plant mission. One caution: the city has tons of vacant historic structures (see Magnuson Park) and finding re-uses for them is often tricky, problematic, and expensive. The Conservatory already has a purpose in preserving, rescuing, and tending plants, educating the public, and providing a touch of warmth in our long damp winters. Such a visit, said one participant, "does something for the spirit." So true. It also has revenue streams. Aside from capitol needs (ongoing renovation of the wings), the $450,000 or so to run the place is just not a huge amount of money, either for the city to cover or for citizens to make up, if need be.
My take away is that there is strong support for the Conservatory, and a lot of room for improving its operation and financial picture even without some kind of expansion (tough to do, even if desirable, because of the historic status of building and park itself). But can a small entity bulk up its clout without having to build a non-profit behemoth?
More expert advice, background, detail, examples, and context are important, however, and the consultant's report should be extremely useful in laying a path to November's gloomy budget forecast, and beyond.
Let's see the report, then talk.
Disclosure: Knute Berger has been working for the owners of Space Needle to produce a 50th anniversary history of the Needle. The owners are also the investors in Chihuly Garden and Glass. In addition, he is serving on a temporary citizen advisory committee for the Parks Department involving the removal of a fence from a park in the Madison Park neighborhood.