In hopes of moving past what’s been the most controversial era for the institution ever, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden on Tuesday named a new CEO and president whose focus will be to restore relations with the broader community and ensure that the Garden’s economic standing improves in the years to come. Meanwhile, two top employees were also let go on Tuesday, signaling that the Garden’s financial woes remain a very significant reality.
Starting on December 1, the Garden’s new leader will be Dr. Steve Windhager, who is currently the director of landscape restoration for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and the brainchild behind the national Sustainable Sites Initiative, which gives a LEED-like rating system to landscape architecture. (See SustainableSites.org for more info.) Windhager takes the helm in the wake of the disastrous Jesusita Fire, which devastated large chunks of the garden, and following the passage of the controversial Vital Mission Plan, a development proposal that was approved this past summer — albeit with severe modifications — after years of wrangling with neighbors, county government, and other critics who saw the plan as going beyond the scope of the garden’s historic mission. The plan’s main proponent was former CEO Edward Schneider, who announced his departure just before it was finally approved.
Windhager said he followed the Vital Mission Plan process, and is aware of the challenges that await him. “We can all agree that the last couple years have not been the highlight of the garden’s performance and I think that things are going to change in the future,” said Windhager, a native Texan who got his doctorate from the University of North Texas. “There’s a lot of opportunity to rebuild the relationships that the garden has with the larger community and to really clarify the important role that the garden can play as a critical component of the cultural life of Santa Barbara. I know that’s not gonna be easy and it’s not gonna come right away. It will involve me and the rest of the staff taking a lot of time to reach out to the rest of the community.”
Windhager believes that the breakdown in communication between the garden’s administration and the community was the root of the problem, and he said he mentioned as much to the board of directors during his interviews. “That the board hired me should say they agree,” he explained.
Windhager believes he is uniquely qualified to bridge that gap. “I have a long history of engaging diverse groups of stakeholders in a dialogue process,” said Windhager, referring to his work on the Sustainable Sites Initiative, which involved 45 experts from around the country. “If you get two experts in the room, you have three opinions,” he laughed. “Getting them to consensus on a rating system shows that I have experience in dealing with differences of opinions in challenging situations.”
Part of that challenge will also be the garden’s tenuous financial situation, which led to layoffs on the same day that Windhager was hired. “We did lay off two staff members today,” said interim director Andrew Wyatt, confirming that CFO Bob Sherwood and library director Joan Ariel had been let go. “Those were basically part of a process of restructuring the management staff here at the garden that’s been going on for awhile. Nonprofits organizations have been savaged by the downturn in the economy, and this is really a response to that.” Wyatt said the duties of Sherwood and Ariel will be taken over by members of the existing staff. (The Independent has also learned that the garden intends to sell its property at 2333 Las Canoas Road due to the financial crunch.)
Windhager said he had just learned of those layoffs a few minutes before he called The Independent. “These are definitely challenging times,” said Windhager. “The garden is being forced to make a lot of very difficult decisions and it will be my first priority to rebuild the sound financial footing that’ll take the garden into the next century. That is the top of my agenda, so that we don’t have to go through things like this anymore.”
When asked if he was sad to be leaving his home state, Windhager said that coming to Santa Barbara made it much easier. And, he laughed, “I think I’ll see some of my friends more often now!”