Staging Success

Permanent Live at the Garden stage underway

By Amos Maki

When the Live at the Garden summer concert series at Memphis Botanic Garden launches its 14th season in June, it will feature a new permanent stage and several other amenities.

A new $6.1 million project is underway that will bring a permanent stage for the Live at the Garden summer concert series at Memphis Botanic Garden. Other amenities will include a food court and box offices.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Besides the new stage, the $6.1 million project now under construction includes a food court, box offices and a below-grade “pit” in front of the stage that can hold around 125 people.

Under the new design, the VIP tables will be located behind the new pit, and the concert area will be lined with a “living wall” of plants, bringing more of the garden experience inside the venue. Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc. is the contractor and archimania is the architect.

While it will improve the concert-going experience for music fans when they gather at the East Memphis oasis for five nights during the summer and early fall, the new stage and 4,775-square-foot encore building are expected to produce year-round financial benefits for the botanic garden.

“Live (at the Garden) takes only five nights out of the year, so that means 360 days out of the year we have an excellent facility to bring in more earned income,” said Jim Duncan, executive director of Memphis Botanic Garden. “The idea was to make the garden more financially sustainable in the years to come, and this is the way to do it.”

Around a decade ago, the botanic garden made a strategic decision to focus more on earned income streams as opposed to donated income, the key piece of a massive effort to make the botanic garden more financially stable.

That decision has helped turn Memphis Botanic Garden into one of the great turnaround stories in Memphis in recent years.

By 2004, a reliance on low revenue-generating attractions and events, combined with dwindling city resources, had put the botanic garden, which began in 1954 under the name Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden, in a perilous financial position.

It was in debt and suffered from staff layoffs and service reductions. Maintaining its existing attractions and facilities had become increasingly difficult, and expansion was out of the question.

But after Duncan arrived and focused on maximizing revenue and adding more attractions, such as the wildly popular My Big Backyard garden designed for children that opened in 2009, membership levels began a steady climb. Membership tripled to 2,617 families by 2009 and 3,340 the following year. Currently, the garden has 3,316 family members.

“It has come miles and miles since (Duncan) took the helm of the gardens,” said Janet Misner, a past president of the Memphis Botanic Garden foundation who serves on the fundraising committee for the Live at the Garden improvements. “Over the last nine to 10 years, he has run it like a business, and I think that was a new concept for the gardens. It just blows your mind.”

Duncan is always looking for ways to increase the financial position of the botanic garden, and the summer concert series presented a unique opportunity.

Launched June 5, 2001, the garden’s summer concert series has grown into one of the area’s top music attractions, drawing acts such as Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, Debbie Harry, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Diana Ross, Chicago, Seal, Heart and Train.

It has also emerged as a crucial revenue stream for the botanic garden, one that helps it pursue its expanding mission.

“The Live at the Garden concert series is the largest single contributor of revenue to the garden,” Duncan said.

Building the permanent stage will reduce the overhead created from erecting and dismantling a temporary stage and create a new asset the botanic garden can use to bring in more events.

“We’re always looking for ways to continue to enhance the bottom line, and we were spending a significant amount of money each year on a temporary stage,” Duncan said.

Duncan said the summer concert series will still be limited to five nights a year but he hopes to fill the rest of the calendar with new performances and events, including acts the botanic garden couldn’t land previously because of its reliance on a temporary stage.

“This is the first time we’ve had a stage, so we’re still learning about this business,” said Duncan. “At the same time, we will have a stage that could be used as a community stage.”

As with the rest of the botanic garden operations, the $6.1 million in enhancements to the Live at the Garden area are financially sound.

“The campaign is going well and we are confident that we will hit our goal by the June 14 dedication,” Duncan said.