The Botanic Man
No horticulture experience? No problem. Jim Duncan's "green thumb" nurtures the bottom line and keeps this garden growing.
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“We diversify . . .”
Key to beefing up that revenue are the number of events MBG has developed. “Our philosophy was that since we didn’t have any home-run hitters, we’d create a lot of singles,” says Duncan. “I’d rather have our revenue spread over 100 events than over two. So we diversify.” In addition to holding more plant sales (one in fall, winter, and spring), and renting its space to numerous clubs for meetings and plant shows, MBG hosts monthly wine-tastings from February through October, a weekly Farmers Market from spring through fall, and various holiday-related events, including the Mother’s Day Tea that drew 500 people this year. It has also branched out with Dog Day Afternoons, complete with sponsors, entry fees for dogs, and contests for best and ugliest costumes; and a Girls Night Out, where “big girls” have play dates with their buds, make jewelry, nibble on chocolates, and sip vodka-infused herbal drinks. “Seventy-five women showed up,” says Duncan. “It was such a hit we’re going to host it again.” Meanwhile, MBG offers many versatile spaces — from Hardin Hall and the Goldsmith Room to several outdoor pavilions and specialty gardens — for weddings, luncheons, conferences, and parties. Today, says Duncan, 88 percent of MBG’s total revenue comes from income.
Besides beefing up revenue, Duncan wanted a better handle on predicting money flow, especially with the Live at the Garden concert series, which started in 2000. “We decided to make it a separate business unit that ran on a calendar year, instead of a fiscal year,” says Duncan. Evaluating it seasonally made it more predictable, he explains, as did negotiating vendor contracts with flat fees instead of percentages. After the early years of losing money, the series — which attracts audiences of up to 6,000 — now operates in the black, with reserved season tickets selling out annually. Bigger plans are also in the works: MBG is in the first phase of raising $8 million to $10 million for a permanent outdoor stage.
“Best of all, it’s paid for.”
If keeping a full calendar of paid events helped secure the garden’s bottom line, so has its membership, which soared from 813 in 2004 to 3,500 today. This increase, Duncan believes, reflects MBG’s efforts “to give people a reason to visit.” In its 60-plus-year history, the attraction has always boasted an array of horticultural highlights, and quite a few have been added in recent years. The blockbuster, which pulled in 800 family memberships within eight months of its 2009 opening, has been My Big Backyard, a three-year culmination of planning, design, and $5.75 million in fundraising. “We had been talking about it forever,” says Duncan, “and we had a stakeholders’ committee made up of landscape architects, staff, parents, grandparents, and interested volunteers.” The committee solicited proposals and hired designer Cindy Tyler, who created children’s gardens in Denver and Atlanta. As for Duncan’s role: “I was somewhat the voice of reason in terms of money. We reached a $2.5 million projection cost and I said, ‘We gotta stop.’”
Almost every local foundation took an active part in building My Big Backyard, as well as private donors, nonprofits, and corporations. “It was very successful, came in under budget, and best of all, it’s paid for,” says Duncan.
The result is a charming, two-and-a-half-acre children’s village with both storybook nostalgia and high-tech touches that teach everything from bird identification and the colors and shapes of seeds, to how to build a rain barrel.
Pausing in his vehicle at The Raindrop Stop — where “thunder” rumbles every 30 seconds, followed by misting, then gentle rain, then a gully washer — Duncan watches with a grin as kids hesitate before dashing through the downpour.
Then he moves on and points out other features: the swing designed to look like a chrysalis, the support beam from an old sequoia tree found on the ground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the House of Rock where children “can make lots of racket,” and a guest house that serves several functions, including a classroom.
“It’s a joy to watch these kids’ excitement . . .”
Indeed, the education that takes place at MBG puts it head and shoulders above others. “The average number of children served per public garden in the U.S. is 11,000,” says Duncan. “We served more than 44,000 just last year. We’re four and a half times the national average.” Some of the kids who visit, he adds, live in neighborhoods “where they don’t see much of the outdoors,” says Duncan. “It’s a joy to watch their excitement over fish, geese, ducks, woods. And we’ve got four acres we just let grow, so there’s lots of room for exploration.”
MBG’s education programs also extend into 192 area schools as the staff is always open to new ideas. For instance, “we talked to elementary school teachers who told us TCAP tests often include questions on prehistoric times, yet not enough attention is given to it in school curriculum,” says Duncan. “So we took an area that wasn’t getting much play and transformed it into the Prehistoric Plant Trail. The Fern Society helped us lay out a fern path, and we found some old ‘dinosaurs’ from an amusement park.” The area even boasts a pit with “dinosaur bones” so kids can pretend they’re paleontologists. And Duncan adds, always with an eye to that watchword, revenue, “We had 87 ‘prehistoric’ birthday parties out here last year, all paid.”