Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank prunes staff to battle economic pinch

A projected 20-percent decline in revenue has forced Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in Greenbank to reorganize, board president Robert Boehm said Monday.

The stagnant economy has reached the rhodies.

A projected 20-percent decline in revenue has forced Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in Greenbank to reorganize, board president Robert Boehm said Monday.

“It’s very clear that the gardens have suffered significantly from the economic decline which started in 2008,” he said.

Boehm said longtime executive director Kristi O’Donnell’s position has been eliminated, along with other staff positions.

Boehm said that as of this week, the nonprofit will operate with three part-time managers who will work about 125 days each year. Three other employees also will work part-time, he said.

Boehm said that personnel costs soak up as much as 75 percent of the organization’s income.

“As the income fluctuates, we need to be able to adjust personnel costs,” he said. “With part-time help we can do that.”

The new positions include a garden manager, a nursery manager and an operations manager, he said. The nursery manager is Susan Reynolds; the board has yet to fill the other two managerial positions, Boehm said.

O’Donnell was named manager of the gardens in 1992 and executive director in 2002, when the nonprofit was formed. Boehm said she was offered one of the three new part-time manager positions, but declined.

He said she and her husband, Keith Bowers, who worked part-time at the gardens, will also be leaving to concentrate on his musical career.

“Their knowledge of the plants and the grounds may take years to replace,” said board member Don Lee. “They will be missed.”

Boehm said the gardens faced declining revenues this past year, and expect a shortfall of as much as $30,000 in 2011.

“When you’re starting with $150,000 to $160,000, that’s a pretty large hit,” he said.

Boehm said there are a number of reasons for the decline in revenue.

For the first time in four years, the annual February auction fundraiser wasn’t held, due to a lack of volunteer commitment and a decline in item donations, Boehm said.

In past years, the auction has raised as much as $25,000, he said.

“People are getting tired of auctions, I guess,” Boehm said, adding that there are no plans to have one next year, either.

There also has been a steady decline in plant sales, Boehm said.

In 2010, the sales netted about $60,000, a 20-percent decline from the previous two years.

There also has been a decline in the “Friends of Meerkerk” program, where visitors can purchase a pass and visit as often as they like, Boehm said. That program, which reliably provided $20,000 to $25,000 per year in the past has also dropped about 20 percent in 2010 from the previous two years, and is down 30 percent from 2008, he said.

Meanwhile, admissions are down about 13 percent from 2008.

And donations were down 20 percent from an average of the prior two years, and down 50 percent from 2008.

Also down is the number of private foundation grants available. Boehm added.

“There are just less grants out there, less money to give out,” he said.

Boehm said the seven-member board’s decision to reorganize was made in December, and that employees were laid off for three months while the new system was put into place.

“We just feel that this will allow us to manage costs in line with revenues,” he said.

Boehm said that starting with the summer schedule, which began this week, the garden would maintain its regular hours — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Sept. 15, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from Sept. 16 through March 14.

The gardens were bequeathed by the Meerkerk family to the Seattle Rhododendron Society in 1979.

The 50 acres include a 10-acre cultivated garden featuring rhodies, woodland species and flowers, and 40 acres of woodland trails.

Boehm said the gardens would continue regular programs, including music festivals and guided tours, its Botany Adventures program for students, and other activities for adults.

He said the board expects the economic situation at the gardens to remain about the same for at least two years, and that it hopes much of the slack caused by the restructuring can be made up by volunteers.

Boehm said that for gardens in general, much of the problem may be related to demographics.

“Garden memberships are down everywhere, and members are getting older,” Boehm said. “The challenge is to get younger people involved in gardening.”

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