By Steve Plunkett                                                                                                

The year 2023 was not a good one for the nonprofit group originally founded to support the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.

Through November, the Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards said it lost $481,000 in donations and gift shop sales that the organization has routinely counted on.

“We are not doing very well. … Our nonprofit is struggling right now,” said John Holloway, its president and CEO.

Visits to the center on State Road A1A are down more than 30%, he told Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District commissioners on Dec. 18, though the city later said it has vastly different numbers.

“We are barely seeing one or two people coming through the door in a day,” Holloway said of the gift shop. “So we are facing some tough choices in the feasibility of operating a gift store there anymore.”

And veterinary care of Gumbo Limbo’s sea turtles, which the state halted last March, will resume no sooner than this coming April, he said.

But Holloway was upbeat, noting that 200 guests had signed up to attend a fundraiser that week in West Palm Beach when at first he had hoped to get 50.

“The West Palm community, the community of Boynton Beach, the community of Delray has all stepped up tremendously and are all excited about the work that we’re going to be doing,” he said. “So things are going well for us, unfortunately not all so well at our original home.”

That future work includes a new focus on helping manatees, dolphins and whales along with sea turtles; a new name — the group is dropping “Gumbo Limbo” and will be known simply as the Coastal Stewards; and a new office. The group is moving from Federal Highway in Boca Raton to a commercial building on State Road A1A between Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes that is next to The Coastal Star, landlord Southdale Properties Inc. said.

“The Coastal Stewards are now going to be focusing on manatees, sea turtles, and dolphins and beaked whales,” Holloway said. “Those are three megafauna in our community that are in peril. They are all in crisis.”

Despite the change in location, Holloway said the Coastal Stewards will continue to rehabilitate sea turtles in Boca Raton once it gets a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“It’s never been our intention to leave. We know and we value taking care of injured sea turtles in South County at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. It’s been our commitment for more than 15 years,” he said of his group, which began with the name Friends of Gumbo Limbo. “But there are a number of challenges.”

Holloway broke down the group’s lost revenue in three areas: donations at Gumbo Limbo’s door, donations in the turtle rehabilitation ward and purchases at the nature center’s gift shop.

Until 2023 all door donations went to the nonprofit. That stopped Jan. 1, 2023, when the city decided to keep the money itself to defray expenses at Gumbo Limbo. That was part of an evolving plan to have the Coastal Stewards take over operational and financial responsibility for the turtle rehab program.

Holloway had planned on collecting $253,000 at the door.

“I will tell you in a high year … in 2019 we had about $350,000 in door donations,” he said.

The Stewards also forfeited donations “from folks coming to see the patients and wanting to give money to help with their recovery. We’re down $50,000 because there’s no patients,” Holloway said.

And because fewer people are visiting, the group’s gift shop inside the nature center is selling fewer items.

“Our gift store sales this year, year-to-date for November, we’re down $177,000. So in total this year just to get us to November we are down $481,000 in what was typical revenue generated at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center,” he said.

Tiffany Lucia, the city’s deputy recreation services director, had a different take on visitation numbers.

“2023 was the second-highest recorded in recent history,” she said, even though the sea turtles were absent much of the year.

Her numbers show 209,412 people visited the center through Dec. 29, down 14.8% from 2022’s record-setting 245,806 visitors, but up almost 4% from 2019’s pre-COVID total of 201,878.

However, Lucia said door donations through Dec. 29 were only $162,448, well below Holloway’s projection.

At the beach and park district meeting, Holloway said the salaries that the nonprofit is paying its veterinarian, Dr. Shelby Loos, and its rescue and rehabilitation coordinator, Kara Portocarrero, are also straining its budget.

“Keep in mind, you have to have them on staff before you can solicit the state to get a permit. So whether we had sea turtle patients or not I’ve had to have that full complement of staff ready to go,” Holloway said.

Loos, he said, spends 24 hours a week tending to sea turtles at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. Portocarrero is adding to her résumé through work in Miami-Dade County, all at Coastal Stewards expense.

The city applied for an FWC permit to hold in captivity Cane and Morgan, its two sea turtles that cannot be released into the wild, on Aug. 4. That application is pending and the two are currently at other facilities.

The Coastal Stewards applied for a permit to provide veterinary care on Aug. 2, were asked for more information about Loos’ and Portocarrero’s qualifications, then resubmitted the application on Dec. 18, setting off a new 90-day clock for the FWC to respond.

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Comments

  • In the less than 3 years John Holloway has created the Coastal Stewards, he has trashed the support of Gumbo Limbo by allowing sea turtle rehab to dissappear as well as resident turtles who will be returned soon under the permit of a City employee who now holds the responsibilities I had when I was Marine Conservationist at Gumbo Limbo from 1995 to 2021.  City employees handled all the marine mammal strandings in and around Boca Raton, NOT the Coastal Stewards!  Sadly, the Coastal Stewards website claims they were the educators for 40 years.  Sorry Coastal Stewards, Gordon Gilbert the Founder of Gumbo Limbo AND a Palm Beach County School Board educator was the primary educator with great support from the Palm Beach County School Board until the recession of 2008.  The Friends of Gumbo Limbo paid for supplies and City employees did the educating after the PBC School Board pulled out.  The Coastal Stewards has done nothing for the Nature Center but pays John Holloway 120K a year to live near the beach which few City employees could afford. 

    If you are looking for a cause to donate to AVOID the Coastal Stewards at all costs, they only pay for salaries and NOT for support of Gumbo Limbo.  Note that they dropped Gumbo Limbo from their name recently! I now refer to the Coastal Stewards as the more aptly named Coastal Sewers!

    Time for the City of Boca Raton to send the Coastal Sewers packing and allow the reinstitution of the more aptly named Friends of Gumbo Limbo!!

    Dr. Kirt W Rusenko

    Marine Conservationist 1995-2021

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