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Selby Gardens: A vision comes to life; a shinier gem

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This is a wonderful story — a story of what people who love their community can do when they commit to a worthy cause.

This is the story of what is now the new, magnificent Marie Selby Botanical Gardens — Sarasota’s Living Museum.

Two decades ago, Selby Gardens was in agonizing turmoil. Yours truly described it this way in our sister paper, the Business Observer in mid-2004:

“Nearly a year has passed since the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens encountered what one of its former board members described as ‘the Perfect Storm,’ a year-long internal tsunami that blew a path of destruction through the not-for-profit organization …

“Eight board members quit in a span of 10 months between the end of 2002 and October 2003. A year ago, the board fired its popular and internationally known executive director, Meg Lowman. A month later its chief operating officer quit. At least four key staff people left around the same time. Large donors and former board members pulled nearly $400,000 in pledges. And after the federal government indicted the gardens for its handling last summer of a rare orchid smuggled into the country from Peru, Selby in April pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime under the Endangered Species Act, paying a $5,000 fine and submitting to three years’ probation.”

On top of all that, Selby’s financial condition also had been on a downward trajectory — four consecutive years of operating losses in the mid-1990s and losses again during the orchid turmoil. 

Those who remember this saga will recall how badly it tarnished this beloved institution. 

But leaders rallied. Then board chair, Barbara Hansen of Longboat Key; board members Michael Saunders and Marty Cooper; and a blue-ribbon CEO search committee of Kumar Mahadevan, CEO of Mote Marine; Debra Jacobs, then CEO of William G. and Marie Selby Foundation; Wilma Hamilton, former superintendent of the Sarasota County School District; and Alex Quarles, chief executive officer of the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation became determined to resurrect the gardens.

They began the long climb back. “It was time, energy, determination and grit, but most importantly, the right board of directors,” Saunders told us.  

You could say exactly the same about the past 20 years with each succeeding board — scrambling to avoid defaulting on loans and meet payroll; bringing back donors; ultimately hiring Jennifer Rominiecki, Selby’s dogged, determined CEO; and executing a vision of what Selby Gardens can and should be. 

The opening last week of the first phase of the Gardens’ $92 million master plan was a monumental culmination. It’s a magnificent addition.

Going back to those dark days, not only did the organization have its problems, half of the gardens’ facilities were forlorn and unworthy of the gardens’ treasures and potential.

But when you tour the new facilities and think about the neighbors’ forceful opposition to Selby’s expansion, you can easily see the tremendous value added to the gardens, its prestige, the neighborhood and Greater Sarasota. 

Perhaps presumptuous to say, but Marie Selby surely is beaming from above. Congratulations to all involved over the past 20 years.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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