Community Oasis

Cover story for The Memphis News

Oct. 19, 2013

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.

(Photo: 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 . . . (read more)