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Toronto Botanical Garden May Shut Down Without Increased City Funding

The staff's already taken a voluntary pay cut, but with diminishing donations and static government funding, it won't be enough.

The Toronto Botanical Garden, an oasis of greenery near the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Leslie Street, is at a “critical financial juncture,” according to its executive director, and may be forced to close its doors permanently unless it can quickly convince the City to give it an annual subsidy of $160,000—a large amount of money to ask for, at least in the age of Mayor Rob Ford.

The City already gives TBG an annual subsidy of $25,000 towards caretaking for its building, the George and Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture. The centre is a LEED-certified community space and special-event venue full of glassy, modern finishings, renovated for about $8 million ($1.5 million of which came from the City) in 2004 and 2005. The City owns the facility, and allows TBG, a private registered charity, to operate there without paying rent. The City also puts about $125,000 per year toward the building’s utilities and maintenance costs.

Even so, TBG budgets about $1.6 million of its own money every year to cover things like salaries for its 23 staff members and building maintenance. Because it’s forbidden, by its agreement with the City, from charging admission, the garden relies on donations, membership fees, venue rentals, and grants to raise almost all of that money. According to Aldona Satterthwaite, TBG’s executive director, this method of paying the bills isn’t working anymore.

“When you don’t have a big, fat endowment behind you, that makes you a bit vulnerable,” she said. “And when things happen that are unexpected…that’s significant.” One unexpected thing to have befallen TBG recently, according to Satterthwaite, was a protracted effort to repair the Dembroski Centre’s parking lot last fall. She estimates that the construction, though paid for by the City, cost TBG about $180,000 in lost revenue.

Satterthwaite says that, although TBG is meeting all its financial obligations for the time being, the situation is dire. She drafted a letter to the City [PDF] requesting an increase in TBG’s annual caretaking subsidy, from $25,000 to $160,000. “We are at a critical financial juncture where this support must be forthcoming,” the letter says, “or we will be forced to close our doors.” Satterthwaite will not speculate on when, exactly, TBG might be forced to shut down if the City doesn’t intercede. “If it doesn’t happen, we will look at Plan B,” she said in an interview.

The letter continues in a similarly gloomy vein: “The wind-down would be highly complex and expensive, and the knock-on effect extensive. Yes, times are difficult in general, but they are impossible for us.”

The request for increased funding will be considered by councillors on the Parks and Environment Committee during that committee’s next meeting, on Monday.

$160,000 per year may not sound like much in comparison to the City’s annual operating budget, which runs well into the billions. But councillors allied with Mayor Ford have fought—and won—against similarly small expenditures on City programs and facilities.

Councillor Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough Agincourt), a Ford ally who chairs the Parks and Environment Committee, was surprised by TBG’s request for funding. He only learned of the garden’s financial troubles when Satterthwaite’s letter, dated October 1, landed on his desk.

“If I understand the request, it’s, ‘Give us the money right now, because if you don’t, we’ll have to close our doors,’” said Kelly. “I would imagine that the City might say to them, ‘Well, before we respond to you one way or another, let us take a look at your books to make sure that you’re handling things in a prudent, businesslike fashion.’”

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” Kelly added. “I just really regret that we’ve been informed of their plight so recently.”

Satterthwaite blames TBG’s financial troubles partly on flagging donations, grants, and sponsorships. She also hints that the City’s $25,000-per-year caretaking contribution—which has remained constant, she says, for about 35 years—hasn’t grown with the gardens. “When that grant was first made,” she said, “this place was the Civic Garden Centre. There were no gardens. We’ve added a building. There’s a lot more going on here, a lot more ground to cover.”

She was unable to discuss the magnitude of the financial problem in precise numerical terms, but she did say that TBG’s senior staff, including herself, are voluntarily taking four days of salary for every five-day work week.

TBG was founded as the Civic Garden Centre in 1958. Satterthwaite, who has been executive director since 2010, says she has no intention of presiding over its closure. “This place is humming,” she said. “We’re doing great. Honestly, everything is terrific, except for the money part.”


  • Anonymous

    I for one have never heard of this place. Maybe that’s the problem.

    • picard102

      I have not as well, and I’d guess a lot of other people don’t either.

    • Liz Hood

      Well I know lots of downtowners get nosebleeds north of Yonge & Bloor but you’d be surprised what’s going on in the rest of the city! We just had Belle Starr and Emma Lee play for free up here this summer. We’re only a 10 minute bus ride from Yonge & Eg. Even faster when the Leslie LRT arrives. If our financial realities supported the kind of advertising campaign we’d like, trust me, you have heard about us by now. We’re 50 years old!

      Listen, I am personally inviting you (and everyone!) to come up this weekend and check us out. Tell them Liz sent you.

      • Anonymous

        “Well I know lots of downtowners get nosebleeds north of Yonge & Bloor but…”

        Yep, public relations seems to be the problem.

        • Liz Hood

          Well no offense was intended- hope it wasn’t taken that way.

        • Corbin Smith

          I thought it was funny. I’m pretty sure I tweeted something along the lines of “where AM I!?” while I was there taking these photographs. I didn’t take any offence by that comment.

    • Anonymous

      Too bad. The gardens are awesome.

      • Anonymous

        Once I get some nosebleed medication I’ll be sure to visit. I should very much like to ride a bus – whatever that may be. Etc.

        • Anonymous

          It’s pretty easy to bike there through the Don Valley paths, but I wouldn’t want to bum you out by forcing you to endure sunshine and exercise north of Bloor.

          • Paul the Torontonian

            OMG, if people in downtown don’t know about this place that is rarely mentioned on the media or talked about by anyone anywhere in Toronto, then they must be stupid! Let me get out my snow pants, it’ll be a long walk.
            Is there a place to get supplies along the trek (ie lattes)?

          • Anonymous

            But downtowners aren’t snooty and self-absorbed, no sir!

          • Sarah

            Toronto Botaninical Garden has shops on Don mills which has Starbucks for lattes, coffees and all sorts of clothing shops and a great place to chill

  • Anonymous

    Unless they grow plants that produce food for city council, they will turn their backs on the gardens.

    • Jennifer

      Actually, they do grow food in one part of the garden (and use it as an opportunity to teach kids how to grow food) and then donate it to a food bank. It’s just one of many great programs they offer.

  • Joshua Murray

    I love the gardens, I was there this week for a class in the evening. Seeing it close would be an awful thing for a city that is fighting against plastic bags and casinos… if you want a sense of nature and preservation – it’s right here!

  • Sue H

    TBG is an oasis in the city, available for all to enjoy with great educational programs and wonderful volunteers who provide support (without which this beautiful garden simply could not run). Does Toronto as a city really want to be without a botanical garden?

  • DotONT

    They just had swank art gallery opening, AND you can take a bee-keeping course there with *real live bees*. Please keep this place running! More please!

  • Jennifer

    The Toronto Botanical Garden does an amazing amount with a small staff contingent and a LOT of volunteers. I don’t have a lot of time to contribute but I really enjoy the time I do get to volunteer at the TBG and the fantastic gardening related events they hold. It’s also a great venue for corporate meetings, weddings, or just a walk through the gardens on a nice day.

  • Laura

    Toronto Botanical Garden means alot to me. It is also home away from home here. Along with a great view, florals all over, fresh air. Nothing can every happens to you at Toronto Botanical Garden. If you feel stressed out, take a walk in the Garden and your worries will go away. Plus you’ll catch a glimse of beautiful brides in their Wedding dress.

  • DebbieD

    It’s much more than a terrific place for wedding photography. It is truly an oasis in mid city available to anyone, not just members. Use the library (largest horticultural library in Canada), take a class (gardening to photography to bird watching), attend a lecture from world renowned masters, put your kids in camp, take a yoga class on the terrace (so serene), learn to paint, and so many more activities and learning opportunities. This place is a treasure! Yes, I am prejudiced – I volunteer there and love it. It deserves our support and the support of the city at a financial level where it can function effectively.

  • Christopher King

    I hate to agree with Kelly here, but that is a lot of money to just suddenly ask for annually, and if everything is right as rain, then what’s happening with donors? Surely there must be rich folk out there, as well as corporations that enjoy taking time out to smell some roses.

  • CW

    TBG is an incredible Toronto resource. It offers such diverse and experiential educational programming to people all across the city. There are so many programs for kids in high priority neighborhoods, summer camps, leadership programs, and tonnes of eco-focused adult programming. They even keep bees at the gardens now. Come on Toronto. We need this fantastic green space that is so much more than gardens (as if that’s not enough!) We need more TBG, not less!!

  • Quinnie

    My three children have grown up visiting these gardens. They love exploring the “maze” graden, hiking up the “spiral mountain” garden, and following the dionsaur tracks in the kids garden. The TBG is a monthly – sometimes weekly – Sunday outing for us. We would be devastated if it were to close.

  • Sue

    Toronto Botanical Gardens is a jewel that the City of Toronto should embrace with significant support and enthusiasm. I am a volunteer gardener there on a weekly basis and have the privilege of watching many, many individuals, school groups and other groups enjoy the gardens and learn about plants. Also, it should be remembered that nearly 1000 lbs of fresh vegetables are donated annually to the North York Food Bank from the gardens. There are tons of interesting courses and lectures offered. The City should be promoting this venue as a draw for locals and tourists alike.

  • Donne

    This place is gorgeous. Like a getaway from the busy city all around, the TBG lets you slip into natural surroundings of flowers, trees, water and breezes. An army of volunteers, and a very small paid staff, work wonders there, with programs for grown-ups, kids and families. It has a fantastic library and is a wonderful source of gardening info. And it’s FREE. How many places in Toronto can you find like that!

  • Sue Ferguson

    This is one giant facepalm moment for Toronto.

    Every world class city has a world class garden, and Toronto Botanical Garden is right up there with the best of ‘em. How can Toronto possibly consider it viable to let the TBG close it’s doors ?
    This serene and beautiful oasis draws not only tourists and those looking for a Kodak Moment on their wedding da — it offers TONS of courses for both adults and children. I’ve seen the Kid’s Program in action, and the value for educators and the kids is extremely high. Not only are the grounds beautiful, but the buildings have architechural and historical significance.

    The staff have taken what amounts to a 20% voluntary pay cut. Toronto Botanical Garden is part of the landscape (literally!) and fabric of my city, and has been so since 1958. We can’t allow it to go belly up. What a shameful thing that would be.
    I hope the media grabs this story and runs with it, and between Toronto City Council and some “angel donations”, the TBG will stay and grow !

  • wanliu355

  • Gardener Gwen

    Appalling! Who does not know that our next generation may have NDD = Nature deprivation disorder? Who does not know that physical, emotional, social and psychological health may be greatly determined by outdoor gardening and gardens? Who does not know how much Toronto needs a Botanical Garden to cling to whatever world class status we may still have?

  • Mark

    This is depressing news. It’s one of the most beautiful public spaces in the city.

  • Mike

    I think Toronto should get to know Toronto Botanical Garden. For those who remembers Edwards Garden it is right next to it. Very elegant place to walk and enjoy the scenery. It is an oasis!!

  • Ashleigh

    This is very disturbing news!! I’ve have booked my wedding at Toronto Botanical Garden next year for the summer!! This can’t be happening!!! The city has to keep it open, I already told my friends to have their wedding at Toronto Botanical Garden too!!! Seriously the city has to do something about it!!! I love this place!!!

  • JanN

    I’ve been a Toronto Botanical Garden member for the last four years and a volunteer in the gardens since I retired in the summer 2011. I can’t believe that the TBG might close. It always seems so busy with many well attended and creative events, courses, lectures, tours and kids activities and camps. I love my volunteer work in the gardens and have connected with many like-minded people there. Gardening is a very popular hobby/passion for many Torontonians and I think it would be criminal if the city lets the TBG close. I think it is very reasonable for us to ask for an increase in the caretaking subsidy, which hasn’t increased in 35 years. The suggested amount of $160,000. is small potatoes in the context of the city’s total budget and will do so much. Aldona Satterthwaite, Paul Zammit and all the other staff have done a tremendous job in rejuvenating the TBG over the last few years. Witness their commitment in accepting voluntary pay cuts! The Toronto Botanical Gardens deserve the city’s support. How can we be a ‘world-class’ city without this organization and the beautiful gardens.

  • Alex

    The gardens are absolutely amazing part of the City. We love it very much. It gives an unforgettable feeling of cosiness and tranquility like a little piece of paradise on earth.
    It gives plenty of positive emotions and rest to thousands of visitors. Closing of it would be a terrible terrible thing that will make our city colder and emptier. Let`s do all we can to prevent this from happening. Keep the Gardens alive!