Gumbo Limbo Finances in the Spotlight as Reopening Approaches

gumbo limbo
Gumbo Limbo boardwalk. Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone loves Boca Raton’s Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. But the Friends of Gumbo Limbo—the non-profit group that raises money for the facility and helps to run it recently got a very public verbal slap.

It happened at the April 26 meeting between the city council and the board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District. Just before that meeting, the Friends had helped to resolve a standoff between the city and the district over new pumps and piping for Gumbo Limbo. After first rejecting the idea, the Friends agreed to pay the roughly $144,000 shortfall for the project and allow work to start soon.

Almost every issue between the council and district involves money, usually with each side seeking more from the other for their many joint recreational operations. This time, district board member Craig Ehrnst took on the Friends.

The district had asked for a discussion about Gumbo Limbo. Board chairman Susan Vogelgesang teed things up by calling on Ehrnst for what appeared to be scripted remarks.

Why was this non-profit, Ehrnst said, basically sitting on nearly $4 million in assets? Ehrnst called the Friends “a failing organization,” based on a rating from a charity website. The group applied for a loan under the federal COVID-19 relief bill. What is the Friends doing with all that money? Vogelgesang and Bob Rollins said the group should sign a formal agreement committing to financial support for the facility.

John Holloway is the Friends of Gumbo Limbo’s executive director. He and several board members were watching the meeting. He called the comments “disappointing.”

Gumbo Limbo is a complicated entity. The city employs the people who do the scientific work, but the beach and parks district reimburses the city for their salaries. Though the district helped to buy Red Reef Park, including Gumbo Limbo, and pays for maintenance and operation, but the city owns it. The city also hires the volunteers.

Meanwhile, the Friends employ the staff at the gift shop, which raises money for the Friends and thus for Gumbo Limbo. The Friends also employs Holloway and others who run the fund-raising and other aspects of the group’s mission.

When Ehrnst complained that the Friends is sitting on money, Holloway responds that the group has lost $50,000 per month since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed Gumbo Limbo. Yet all the expenses to care for the animals have continued. Holloway also notes that the beach and park district does not give the Friends any money.

I reviewed the Friends’ IRS Form 990 for 2019, the most recent year available. It does show the group having $3.8 million in assets.

Holloway points out, however, that much of that money is spoken for. Some will go toward the new observation tower. Some will go toward that pipes and plumbing project. I recall how some residents complained about all the money the city has in reserves and demanded a cut in the tax rate. City Manager Leif Ahnell regularly responded that much of the reserve money had been allocated for projects.

Before the April 26 meeting, the Friends had prepared a presentation. It didn’t come up. According to the presentation, the Friends contributed $460,000 toward Gumo Limbo’s current budget and $1.4 million from 2016 to 2020. That would have been relevant information.

Obviously, though, the comments hit home. Holloway said he has not spoken with any council members or board members. That will change. “Our organization,” Holloway said, “has not made a concerted effort to share information. We have to highlight the work we have done.”

Holloway added that the group’s mission will expand to focus more on “coastal stewardship.” He said that he Friends probably will ask to appear at an upcoming city council workshop. Among other things, Holloway will say that Ehrnst’s “failing organization” characterization was based outdated information from charity ratings organizations.

Mayor Scott Singer said city staffers have begun working on a formal agreement with the Friends. “It is incumbent on us,” Holloway said, “to share more information.” And perhaps it is incumbent on elected officials to check their information.

Reopening soon?

Relief for the Friends may be coming soon.

Ahnell said at a recent meeting that the facility could reopen next month. Before that happens, he said, the city must train all the volunteers in pandemic procedures. As with other organizations, Gumbo Limbo will have to navigate the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines about masks and Gov. DeSantis’ overruling of local rules.

Holloway said reopening may begin with tours scheduled through the city.

More change for Delray CRA?

Delray Beach may remove the two independent board members of the community redevelopment agency.

During Tuesday’s meeting, City Commissioner Ryan Boylston made the proposal. In 2018, when commissioners abolished the seven-member, independent board, they added two members whom the commission would appoint.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia led the charge to change the CRA. It happened with little public notice. It became clear during discussion Tuesday that the commission acted without knowing all the potential ramifications. Some commissioners believed that the change might be temporary. In fact, City Attorney Lynn Gelin said, the change is irrevocable.

Boylston said the five-member board would bring simplicity and end any confusion. The same people who approve the city budget would approve the CRA budget. There would be no disagreement about who pays for what.

The response broke down along the usual political lines. Adam Frankel agreed with Boylston. He also stated that he might have voted differently in 2018 if he had known that the shift would be permanent.

Petrolia disagreed. She claimed that, under the new format, the CRA is sending more money to the Northwest/Southwest neighborhoods to which the CRA had promised money for years without delivering. Juli Casale, who almost always sides with Petrolia, did so this time.

That left it to Shirley Johnson, who said she favored the commission-only format in 2018. Gelin said she would prepare a resolution for a commission vote after public comment.

Petrolia reacted as she always does when she appears to have lost. She accused Boylston of favoring the change because certain votes—unspecified—hadn’t gone his way. She griped that there were three votes for the other side and tersely moved the meeting along.

Commission errs again

I have written about the Palm Beach County Commission’s decision to undercut the plan—boosted with a voter-approved, $100-million bond program—to protect the Agricultural Reserve Area. That wasn’t the only bad vote.

In addition, the commission tentatively approved a workforce housing project for the reserve. Commissioners heard from the developer and others that non-farm employees who work in the reserve would like to live close to their jobs.

That would have been a good argument—in any other part of the county. The reserve, however, is not a typical neighborhood. So the legitimate need for workforce housing—defined as affordable for the middle class — does not apply.

This project will go to the state for review and then back to the commission, which could deny it. Even taking that first step, however, is another bad precedent for the reserve.

Planning and Zoning item

An interesting item is on the agenda for tonight’s Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board meeting,

It seems routine. A condominium wants a variance to renovate its beachfront pool, deck, spa and walkway. That area is east of the state’s Coastal Construction Control Line, established to protect the dune.

The staff recommends that the council approve the variance. Meanwhile, a lawsuit against the city continues, based on the council’s denial of a similar variance to allow construction of a beachfront home near Gumbo Limbo.

As the staff has noted, almost all such variances applied to existing structures, not new construction. But one may presume that the litigant’s legal team will monitor the condo’s request.

Not the next Ft. Lauderdale

During the seven years of writing this blog, I’ve heard residents of Boca Raton and Delray fret that overdevelopment was turning each city into “another Fort Lauderdale.” Here’s some perspective.

The newest proposal in Fort Lauderdale is a five-tower project to replace the old downtown Sears shopping center. Every building would be taller—much taller, in some cases—than the 10-story height limit in downtown Boca Raton and the four-story height limit in downtown Delray Beach.

That project is one of 38 going through the approval process in Fort Lauderdale. Some call for 40-story towers. Boca Raton and Delray Beach are quite far from being another Fort Lauderdale and almost certainly will stay that way.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.