Coinciding with its 85th anniversary, the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens (SBBG) held a meeting this past Thursday, April 7, with CEO Steve Windhager to discuss the future Vital Mission Plan (VMP) and to gain valuable feedback from the community to determine the fate of the botanical refuge.

Held in the Fleischmann Auditorium of the Museum, of Natural History, the meeting began as Windhager offered up a PowerPoint presentation detailing the main focuses of the VMP and took comments from locals throughout the discussion. He emphasized advocating local and state level protection of California native plants, greater sustainability, and increased community involvement in the promotion of native plant growing in homes and gardens.

Steve Windhager
Paul Wellman

“The Jesusita Fire in 2010 burned down over 75 percent of the SBBG’s property. The insurance settlement was of around 6.5 million dollars, most of which has been used for fire clearing. “In the future, I want the gardens to be a recognized resource of natural plants in California and I want it to inspire native growers and give them all the information they need to do that,” said Windhager.

The meeting, which was largely a success according to local attendees, came on the heels of the controversy that followed the transition of power from former CEO Fife Symington, who resigned in November 2010, leaving Windhager to assume the newly vacant position on December first of last year. Symington’s involvement with the gardens was contentious from the beginning, when he proposed that the VMP expand the gardens beyond their intended historical borders, thus causing a financial and political ripple that resonated within the community for months. Many volunteers and staff members lost their jobs partially due to Symington’s failure to negotiate a successful VMP proposal, so for many, Windhager represents a much needed breath of fresh air in rejuvenating the garden project.

The crowd was overall pleased by Windhager’s progress and his more transparent approach to the community, which included the town hall style meeting as well as an online survey for all concerned locals to fill out and make suggestions. Contrary to her thoughts on Symington, Santa Barbara native Barbara Bonadero praised Windhager’s work and retained an optimistic outlook on the future of the gardens.

“We’re very hopeful for a positive outcome. He seems more open and amiable to our ideas and the general public [than Symington was]. He’s still very fresh and doesn’t have a great grip on the controversy of the history of the garden, though. I’m concerned mainly with the historical aspects of it. I want to see him protect the history; only 13 of the 78 acres are actually considered a historical landmark,” Bonadero noted.

Those in attendance voiced anxieties concerning a broad range of points, from safety hazards and greater access to exits in the gardens, to establishing more sustainable practices for the already existing buildings and working toward greater restoration and conservation. Windhager was more than happy and at ease, however, listening to the issues of the people and fielded questions with a straightforward calm.

“I think it was great to see the community come out tonight, so I was excited with the turnout of the public. Fiscally, we need to increase the earned revenue and grants for the core operating needs of the garden’s budget, but we ultimately hope to have the most renowned native plant landscape of any public garden in California,” Windhager said.

SBBG administrators (including Windhager and a board of trustees) hope to create two new gardens by 2015, but no real concrete dates or figures were proposed at Thursday’s meeting. Windhager noted that this initial meeting was merely meant to generate community involvement and feedback and that the strategic planning committee would propose a more developed plan to the board after taking community members’ comments and surveys into consideration. Another meeting is slated to take place on May 17, in which Windhager will propose more solid figures for continued planning and development of the gardens.


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