Toronto Botanical Garden May Shut Down Without Increased City Funding
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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.”