By Jennifer O. Rominiecki

Originally published by HeraldTribune.com
Posted Oct 26, 2019 at 5:53 AM   

When our team at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was in the midst of creating our master plan more than two years ago, we felt the sting of Hurricane Irma and knew we had to act to find a way to protect our world-class collections, while also charting a path to fiscal sustainability.

This plan protects and preserves Selby Gardens for the future in two key ways.

First, it codifies our privately owned 15 acres as a botanical garden, protecting the property from high-density development. Without this plan, our property remains vulnerable to being broken apart and sold for this purpose. Anyone who has enjoyed visiting the Gardens would agree that saving this space as a garden for the generations to come is a significant public benefit.

Second, the plan protects Selby Gardens’ fiscal future so we can continue offering world-class research and strong community benefits like the My Garden program, which gives free memberships to underserved youths and their families in our community. Relying only on philanthropy and grants is not a healthy funding model. Diversified revenue streams are vital — and we can sustain earned revenues by being able to accommodate our visitors with sufficient parking. The addition of a restaurant adds yet another revenue stream — while enhancing the visitor experience and connecting edible gardening to our mission. A robust schedule of continually rotating exhibits will keep these initiatives energized with new and repeat audiences. This wide-ranging approach to generating revenues will ensure that we can weather financial ups and downs.

While our journey started with researching ways to safeguard our world-class collections and ensure diverse revenue streams, we also knew that reorganizing our property would bring significant public benefits to the people of, and visitors to, the city of Sarasota.

Implementing the master plan allows us to:

• Add 50 percent more walkable garden space within our existing footprint.

• Create nearly 50,000 square feet of free public access through the addition of public park space, courtyards and a 12-foot-wide multiuse recreational trail around the perimeter of our property.

• Enhance and maintain a city-owned waterfront pocket park adjacent to the northwest corner of our property to make it an extension of the planned trail.

The new parking arrangement will improve traffic conditions at the corner of U.S. 41 and Orange Avenue by redesigning the flow of traffic, using space on our property to create new queuing lanes and implementing signal modifications to increase throughput.

We are focused on ensuring that the priority for hiring during the construction phase be given to city residents. Working with our partners, Willis Smith Construction, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s CareerEdge Funders Collaborative and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, we plan to build on the success of the Fast-Track Training Program. This model provides job training to city of Sarasota residents who want to learn a trade and connects them with employers. Subcontractors with the most Fast-Track student employees will have priority in the bidding process for Selby Gardens.

The Sky Garden houses parking, the Plant Shop and the Restaurant, but it’s also an environmental hub. It will feature a system that filters stormwater and returns it clean to Sarasota Bay. And, with its significant solar array, Selby Gardens will become the first net-positive energy botanical garden complex in the world. These elements will make our city an international model for sustainable practices.

As we’ve explained these benefits, our proposed plan has earned the recommendations of the Planning Board and city staff, and — with the incorporation of more than $2 million of changes based on neighborhood input — the plan has earned the support of more than 6,000 citizens who have signed our petition. In addition, with more than $35 million from private philanthropy to make it a reality, this project is a gift to our city.

We have worked hard to get the facts out about the plan, answer questions and seek common ground. A prime example of our willingness to listen and work with neighbors involves the restaurant and height of the Sky Garden. We recently determined that a 25 percent reduction in the footprint of the proposed restaurant is doable without drastically hindering our goals for financial sustainability. In addition, we can shift the restaurant terrace north along U.S. 41 away from neighborhoods to the south, while also moving the edible garden to the same level as the restaurant, thereby decreasing the height of the structure by 7 feet.

There is a reason more than 6,000 people have signed the petition in support of this project: This plan will guarantee public access to our world-class gardens for decades to come, while providing both environmental and financial sustainability for future generations.

Jennifer O. Rominiecki is president and chief executive of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Information about plan updates is available at: https://s8503.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/Marie-Selby-Botanical-Gardens-Incorporating-Neighborhood-Feedback-10.25.2019-1.pdf

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