Pandemic cripples fundraising; no reopening date set
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By Larry Keller
While other nature-themed attractions that shut their doors to the public last year because of COVID-19 soon reopened, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center remains mostly closed for pandemic reasons, with no scheduled reopening date and its fundraising auxiliary hurting financially.
“Funding is urgently needed,” Sheila Reinken, treasurer of the nonprofit Friends of Gumbo Limbo, wrote in a recent newsletter. “The effects of this crisis on Gumbo Limbo Nature Center are becoming more and more challenging each day. For the first time in 36 years, we face a $900,000 shortfall in funding.”
Among other things, the nonprofit runs the nature center’s gift shop, collects voluntary admissions, underwrites its website, pays for veterinary care, has picked up the tab for GPS equipment for sea turtle research and provides scholarships to graduate students. It also organizes fundraisers such as a 10K run and Gumbo Fest. The nonprofit had total revenues of $1.5 million in fiscal 2018 and expenses of more than $1 million.
“It’s a pretty serious situation for us because it means we are having to rely on our reserves to maintain the budget and the strategic planning the organization is committed to. We did not pull back from any of our funding commitments,” said John Holloway, Friends’ executive director.
While the city holds the deed to the nature center, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District pays for operating expenses such as staff salaries and maintenance of buildings, pavilions and aquariums. That funding source has remained unchanged since the pandemic and there have been no layoffs or furloughs of city staff, said Leanne Welch, Gumbo Limbo’s manager.
Gumbo Limbo accounts for more than half of the $5.2 million allocated this year to Red Reef Park, where it is located, said Briann Harms, the district’s executive director. Separately, the district is spending $6.5 million on capital improvements that include a new pump station and pipes to bring seawater to the nature center’s tanks.
The Friends shortfall is due in part to a loss of more than a half-million dollars in gift shop income, where eight part-time employees of the nonprofit lost their jobs. A 2017 Friends of Gumbo Limbo annual report showed the gift shop and donations together accounted for 75% of its revenues. Most of that comes from the $5 voluntary donations collected from walk-up traffic.
Last year began well at Gumbo Limbo.
“January and February of 2020, the numbers we were seeing, the visitors … the retail, the amount of donations that were coming in, they were significant,” Holloway said. “It was some of the largest numbers we had ever seen. When everything went quiet in March, that really started to take a toll.”
More than 200,000 people annually visited the 20-acre center in Red Reef Park pre-pandemic. While there are aquariums with about 1,500 fish, a butterfly garden and a boardwalk, Gumbo Limbo is best known for sea turtle conservation. Its staff treats injured and sick sea turtles that are on view in tanks at the nature center, and, when possible, returns them to the sea once they heal. That work continues. The nature center also monitors sea turtle nesting on 5 miles of beaches and provides lab space to FAU for sea turtle and other research.
Since closing last March, Gumbo Limbo has reopened its boardwalk through a coastal hammock forest and installed exhibit signage and a self-guided tour. Everything else remains closed to visitors. Its education team has worked with local schools to provide virtual programs and experiences, and virtual programming for all ages on its social media channels and website.
In normal times, the nature center relies on 250 volunteers to welcome visitors and help prepare food for its animals, clean tanks and enclosures and more. “Until we are able to bring our volunteers back and guarantee their safety during the pandemic, it will be difficult to open to the public with a level of service that our loyal residents, members and visitors have come to expect,” Welch said.
Staff has taken up volunteers’ tasks in addition to its regular duties.
The closure to the public has enabled Gumbo Limbo to more easily proceed with previously budgeted upgrades and renovations such as installing a new roof on the main building, Welch said. Other work slated to begin soon: a new HVAC system and hurricane impact windows, and replacement of the wooden deck and railings around it.
“The construction and upgrades should be completed by late spring or early summer,” Welch said.
Other nature centers opened fully many months ago. Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach closed for two months, beginning last March. Ditto for Sandoway Discovery Center in Delray Beach.
Like Gumbo Limbo, Loggerhead Marinelife provides medical care to imperiled sea turtles and monitors their nests on that area’s beaches. The facility has 320 volunteers reporting on a weekly basis while observing safe practices, and is undergoing a huge expansion to its campus while remaining open to the public.
Sandoway House displays exhibits on coastal and marine ecosystems and includes daily shark and stingray feedings. With total revenue of $496,000 in 2019, it is much smaller than Gumbo Limbo. Its three full-time and two part-time employees remained at their jobs during the closure, said Executive Director Danica Sanborn.
Even so, Sandoway took a financial hit in lost revenues from admissions, birthday parties and field trips. Generous grantors and reserve funds helped make up the difference, as did receipt of a $29,700 Paycheck Protection Program loan, Sanborn said. (Friends of Gumbo Limbo also obtained a PPP loan of $74,000.)
Sandoway soon will proceed with a number of upgrades that include a new stingray and small shark touch tank. Money for those projects was in place before the pandemic, Sanborn said.
Sandoway and Loggerhead Marinelife, however, are nonprofit organizations. The city of Boca Raton is responsible for Gumbo Limbo and must evaluate risks differently, said spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson. “We have not decided the level of risk that is acceptable to the public and employees and volunteers,” she said.
With the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic and vaccines, there’s no telling when that might change.
“I cannot offer a tentative date for reopening to the public,” Welch said.