Community Oasis

Memphis Botanic Garden turns 60 with big projects on horizon


A visitor walking the winding, sun-dappled paths of Memphis Botanic Garden past stands of maple trees and beds of hydrangeas might never guess that there was a time when a black cloud hung low over the East Memphis attraction.

Students from Faith Christian School take part in the Memphis Botanic Garden’s pond ecology class, one of many activities at the 60-year-old garden.

(PHOTOS: Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The area was established as the Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden in 1953. The Memphis City Council officially designated its 96 acres on the eastern edge of Audubon Park as Memphis Botanic Garden in 1966. It was a time that saw a land rush of sorts when federal money in the 1960s and 1970s made possible the acquisition and development of more than 2,500 acres for 50 parks in the city.

By 2004, reliance on low revenue-generating attractions and events, and dwindling city resources, had put the garden in an arrested state of development. The garden, having just celebrated its half-century anniversary, was a rudderless ship.

“We were in crisis mode, no doubt,” said Gary Wunderlich, founder of Wunderlich Securities and Memphis Botanic Garden board president at the time. “There was a vacuum of leadership, (we) had very talented people who probably weren’t as well organized and they really needed a leader.”

The search committee enlisted the help of Allie and Barbara Prescott to “figure out a plan and really define what type of person we needed to lead the organization,” Wunderlich said.

It was an extensive search process with hundreds of resumes submitted, and a dozen candidates interviewed individually until it came down to just two people. One had a green thumb with horticulture background credentials as a gardener. The other was Jim Duncan.

Duncan grew up in Itta Bena, Miss., graduated from nearby University of Mississippi and came to Memphis to coach high school basketball and football. After eight years on sidelines and in locker rooms, he accepted a position in pharmaceutical sales and gained a reputation for turning things around under adverse circumstances. He was just what the demoralized team at the Garden needed: a combination business manager and coach.

Wunderlich said that, in Duncan, the search committee found “the guy who we thought could inspire the talented people that were already there, more of a sales and management background to organize the organization, if you will, motivate the people that were there.”

Duncan himself remembers it as a time of frustration, a “vicious circle” with cost-cutting measures having been put into place in the form of staff layoffs and eradicated programs. The garden was $600,000 in debt with a staff of only 19, and a total membership count of 809 families. There was no money for expansion and not enough gardeners then to keep up with general maintenance of the grounds, damaging the very reason for the garden’s existence.

He looked immediately to the assets the gardens had, what was controllable, and began capitalizing on the earned income component with an eye toward making the operation self-sustainable and not having to go to the community with hat in hand. “It was difficult, with the garden’s status being what it was then, to ask people for money simply because, as we said, we really hadn’t earned the right at that time to ask for donations,” Duncan said.

With a quick glance at the shelves in Duncan’s office, a visitor will find no books on botany yet plenty on finance and economics. He and his staff began running the garden as a business, developing a revenue sheet – still in use today – where every department is listed with each year’s revenue compared to the previous year. The expectation is to increase income by department year in and year out.

“There is such a thing as profit in a nonprofit,” he said. “The difference is that, instead of in corporate America, where the profit is distributed among the stockholders, here, any profit that was made was sunk back into the garden in order to make our place better.”

A profit and loss statement is run for every event, no matter the size – from Live at the Garden, the seasonal outdoor concert series and the operation’s largest event seeing 6,000 guests per show, to weekly wine tastings to each individual wedding.

It is this attention to detail and the bottom line that helped to bring about a change, to see that black cloud of despair that hung over the board and the employees’ heads begin to dissipate. With brighter skies came the people. Membership tripled to 2,617 families by 2009, and 3,340 the following year. There are close to 3,600 member families now and an operating budget of $5 million.

At the outset, Duncan’s team developed a five-year-plan. Among the items that saw the light of day was the development of specialty gardens such as the Hosta Trail, one of 15 such trails certified in the country, a more active membership program, and the garden was designated as a Level IV Arboretum.

Memphis Botanic Garden’s Julie O'Bryan (right) examines a dragonfly larva with Elisa Webb (center) and Desiree Price.

Included in that first five-year plan, yet unrealized until the start of the second, was the goal to develop a “major attraction,” Duncan said. “We didn’t know what that was when we put the plan together, but we knew we had to create something that had the wow effect.”

Based upon the increased membership and black-ink financials, the garden had earned the right to ask for donations. It recruited nonprofit consultant and strategist Kim Gaskill to lead a $5.3 million capital campaign for that coveted major attraction. When the 2.25-acre garden specifically designed and built with children in mind was opened in 2009, My Big Backyard, “was a huge impact on the operation,” Duncan said, and it accounted for much of the jump in memberships that year and since. It was the “wow effect” that he and his team had dreamed of.

Memphis Botanic Garden was begun 60 years ago when Mrs. Morgan Ketchum donated 2,500 iris rhizomes to the city of Memphis, which planted them in the newly developed Audubon Park. If a visitor were to stand in that original iris garden and look south, it would be to a vast field of grass. On the other side of that field, against a backdrop of trees, is where the next phase of building will take the garden into the future.

Culled from the first five-year plan was the idea of a permanent stage for the Live at the Garden concert series. The $6 million capital campaign is being led by Stacie and David Waddell. Halfway into the yearlong campaign, the amount pledged so far is just more than $3 million.

“The message has resonated, there’s been a lot of participation,” said David Waddell, principal of Waddell & Associates. “We’ve got some big opportunities still before us. The reaction to the capital campaign has been very, very, very positive, especially if you compare it against other capital campaigns where the marketplace message kind of fell flat.”

The eagerness to help and see the dream become a reality is, in part, due to the mission of the garden itself: to act as a community resource and enhance lives by connecting people with their environment. With attendance last year hitting 230,000, the more significant number may be that of schoolchildren – 36,000 per year – that attend, whether with school groups or family.

“My Big Backyard has been fantastic, membership’s been fantastic, what really resonates with donors that they’re not aware of is how many inner-city children rotate through the garden,” Waddell said. “So it’s not just sort of this ‘East Memphis’ garden that’s frequented by those with means – it really is a community asset.”

By enhancing the garden and the attractions such as the permanent stage, donors are ensuring, not just that concerts will go on, but, Waddell said, “what they’re contributing to is the perpetuation of the garden, to all the programming, to the outreach that the garden does. Jim’s been just as dedicated to making the garden an integral part of the community for everybody as he’s been to making good financial decisions with the Live series.”

Sean Stracener looks for bugs at the Memphis Botanic Garden's pond ecology class.

The cost prohibitive nature of erecting and breaking down a stage per event has kept the garden from hosting other concerts and live shows that would then operate at a loss on the much-revered P&L statement. A permanent stage will allow for children’s theater, smaller musical acts, the symphony and ballet to use the natural surrounding of the garden.

Duncan doesn’t downplay the importance of the garden’s friends over the years, and he readily points to improvements financed by Helen and Jabie Hardin, and the Goldsmith family. But the capital campaign and stage will move the garden forward from the donation-based operation it was in 2004, to a revenue generating organization ensuring its self-sustainability for years to come and allow the development of more attractions, more events and more gardens.

This November will see the completion of the latest addition. The Asian Garden is an expansion of the existing Japanese Maple Grove donated 30 years ago by Plato Touliatos in honor of his parents, Dan and Erasmia. Highlighting plants and trees from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Southern Himalayas, the Asian Garden will round out the flora found in the Maple Grove and nearby Japanese Garden, with its iconic red bridge.

In 2004, the board was worried for the very life of the garden as it limped along, dependent upon city money and the relatively scant number of memberships. No more, said Duncan, who gives much of the credit to his devoted and enthusiastic team.

Others also are quick to credit the garden’s staff for the turnaround.

“It’s really been a testament to the quality of his leadership and, I think, empowering the people that were there because, if you look, a lot of the people that were there then are still there, and were there before Jim got there; very good people,” Wunderlich said.

Duncan has called on those people to step up and they have done so, a passion reignited for the garden that has spilled over into the community, the volunteer base, educators and donors. With a fervor previously unknown to the garden, Duncan has brought a single-minded, business approach to the nonprofit that has seen it blossom to a new potential in less than a decade.

“The first step in achieving results is the fact that you’ve got to believe the results that you’re trying to achieve, that they’re important,” he said.