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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 27, 2019 4 months ago

Selby: What's not to like?

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The directors and CEO of Selby Gardens are doing their job: enacting a vision to turn the endangered asset into the jewel is deserves to be.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

We can already hear the response to the headline.

“‘What’s not to like?’ Are you kidding? How about the traffic? How about the monstrosity of that garage ruining the residential neighborhood?”

For months now, we’ve been taking phone calls and receiving emails and text messages from residents expressing their emphatic opposition mainly to Selby Gardens’ proposed Sky Garden parking structure. The objections primarily are coming from those residents who live just south of the gardens.

We get it. Few people like change, especially when it affects — or might affect — where and how they live. The tendency is to leap to the worst possible outcomes and try to stop development altogether or scale it back.

We saw that just two weeks ago when Sarasota’s old guard, anti-growth forces tried to stop the Epoch condominium. Everywhere you look here, the “no” forces are plenty: Siesta Promenade, St. Regis Hotel on Longboat Key, the Lido Pavilion, the Ringling Bridge, etc. We could fill a page of projects Sarasotans have tried to stop.  

It is so Sarasota, so Florida. “I’ve got mine. You can’t have yours.” 

Fiduciary responsibility 

And it has irony. Often, those who oppose development are the successful businesspeople and capitalists who spent their professional lives building their wealth on growth — on growing businesses. They embraced the entrepreneurial ideas of creating a vision and striving to go higher and be better. And they embraced that oft-repeated business bromide: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

Now put yourself in the shoes of the board of directors of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and its CEO, Jennifer Rominiecki. 

Perhaps it’s presumptuous to assume, but surely the late Marie Selby would want the directors and CEO of her legacy to be visionaries. Sarasotans, too, would want them to be visionaries and stewards who take seriously their fiduciary responsibility to sustain and grow this important Sarasota institution.

To its credit, the Selby board, in the wake of the devastating recession, recognized the gardens would not survive were it to stay on its course. At the end of 2008, Selby had $197,728 in cash and long-term debt of $2 million. 

See the Selby Master Plan

See facts on the Selby project

 

Under the leadership of Sarasota entrepreneurs Michael Saunders and Cathy Layton, the Selby board embarked this decade on a mission to inject new energy into a botanical gem that, sadly, was browning, spotted and limp. 

The board decided to think big and adopted a grand vision. Essential to that vision was the hiring of a CEO who was familiar with the field and who had the energy and smarts to fulfill the vision. 

In 2015, the board hired Rominiecki. Her credentials: 15 years as an executive at the New York Botanical Gardens, including oversight of the gardens’ campaign to raise $480 million.

In short order, the board and Rominiecki began taking steps to enact the vision to make Selby what it should be — an international leader in its field. The biggest step was creating the master plan they are now trying to implement.

This is their job and responsibility: to make it great.

Unimpressive, scruffy

Now, you have to admit: Selby Gardens’ appearance is unimpressive and scruffy, especially on the east side of its campus. As a new visitor to Sarasota, you would never know Selby possesses the largest collection of orchids and bromeliads in the world, as well as priceless volumes of research books that date back to the 1700s. Rarely does the public see these artifacts. Nearly all of these priceless botanical gems are wrapped in old newspapers and stored in plastic bins in rickety buildings that are dangerously susceptible to flooding and being destroyed in a tropical storm — certainly in a hurricane.

Indeed, Rominiecki says that when Hurricane Irma blew by last year, that was Selby’s “oh, crap” moment — when all of Selby officialdom knew the urgency of moving ahead with the master plan. One of the most important pieces is the construction of new facilities to house and display Selby’s priceless artifacts.

But the greater vision is to convert Selby’s 15 acres into a world-acclaimed Living Museum and research center.

Look at the photo above. And take the time to browse the renderings and details of the master plan (see online links above). Make special note of all the features that will give the public greater, free access to Selby Gardens — a 12-foot-wide walking trail around the perimeter of the grounds and a pocket park in the northwest corner of the property. 

Imagine a library where visitors will be able to see Selby’s 1700-era books, rich with remarkable paintings of plants and flowers. And imagine a greenhouse where visitors, unlike today, will be able to see Selby’s living plant collections. 

When you see the vision, you cannot help but say: What’s not to like? You cannot help but think what a great asset that would be for the city of Sarasota. 

The garage

But what about the garage?

Looking at the Sky Garden garage in the renderings, it seems ingenious and innovative. It will be shrouded in plant cover befitting the gardens and to soften, if not hide, its presence. 

Selby has carved away portions of its property to accommodate traffic and minimize backups. It has designed this facility with solar panels and other environmental features that will allow Selby to be a self-powered 15-acre campus with renewable energy and have a 500,000-gallon storm water treatment system that will return clean water to Sarasota Bay. The garage will hide delivery trucks and store Selby’s refuse in an enclosed room, each to address neighbors’ concerns.

Go through the box at the top of this file — a compendium of steps Selby is taking to address neighbors’ concerns.

No matter, they won’t assuage those opposing the garage. They see nothing but traffic. 

But this is Florida. Sarasota will continue to grow. Traffic will increase no matter what. And you can envision that one day those low-rise buildings across from Selby on Mound Avenue will be taller and house more people, more traffic.

The list of objections is long — opposition to Selby’s zoning applications and accusations about becoming an event center for Michael’s On East. We couldn’t address all of the objections here. Read what Selby says online at YourObserver.com/Selby-facts.

We know how this will go. When Selby’s applications for a rezoning, comprehensive plan amendment and easement vacation come before the city, inevitably Selby will face the phalanx of opposition that every developer encounters in Sarasota.

Too bad. 

When we think of Sarasota’s potential, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens should be what it aspires and deserves to be. Its board and CEO are doing its job — creating a world-leading botanical jewel that will add value and pride for all of Sarasota. Just like the Ringling Bridge.

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