John Curtis getting to know Ventnor Botanic Garden. Picture by Lauren Pysk.
WIGHT LIVINGWHEN Simon Goodenough was curator of Ventnor Botanic Garden, he was often heard to remark: "What we REALLY need is a millionaire here..."
Mr Goodenough was acutely aware of the potential for building on the garden’s reputation — to turn it into real centre of excellence and place of education, gentle entertainment and peace.
But he knew it would take investment and he knew that would not come from the IW Council, which was looking to reduce its spending to concentrate on core responsibilities.
Everything else, including the garden, would become increasingly peripheral.
Mr Goodenough was headhunted to become the curator of the 560-acre National Botanic Garden of Wales nearly a year ago, and then, along came the answer to a gardener’s and the IW Council’s prayer, American company turnaround troubleshooter John Curtis.
Mr Curtis has long-standing IW connections and you feel from talking to him that he loves the place. He has bucketsful of infectious enthusiasm, fired initially by his grandmother’s passion for horticulture.
It is that enthusiasm which has captured the imagination of the staff at the garden and, indeed, the local authority officers and its cabinet.
The authority had cut the cost to the council tax payer of the garden to £200,000 a year.
But, the truth was the council could not do much more.
With constraints on its spending, the council had to look to private enterprise, or a community interest company, as the way forward for the garden.
On Tuesday, the authority’s cabinet rubber stamped an agreement that will dramatically reduce the amount of public money put in to the place.
There will be £200,000 as a one-off payment to carry out essential repairs and capital improvements to the garden’s buildings and infrastructure.
That amount of cash is a conservative estimate, especially when looking at the crazed polycarbonate cladd-ing of the main glasshouse, just for starters.
In return for that, and the council allowing staff to remain in its pension scheme at an annual contributions’ cost of £24,000 at current rates, Curtis has agreed to invest £800,000 over five years.
It all adds up to more than the million Goodenough had talked about.
It will happen through a community interest company (CIC), which is pledged to plough profits back into the garden.
The CIC will lease the 29-acres of garden for 125 years, rather than buying the freehold. A lease rather than a sale means the local authority will not have to pay back the £1 million lottery grant that funded the visitor centre.
The CIC will be responsible for the lease and has promised to involve the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Tresco sub-tropical gardens to enhance Ventnor’s reputation.
Mr Curtis’s offer was one of 18 original expressions of interest, which resulted in two firm bids. They were evaluated by a panel of council officers, councillors, business people, the Friends’ Society and garden staff.
The process dragged on for many weeks longer than hoped but at least Mr Curtis, his educationalist wife, Mylene, and the Ventnor CIC board will be in place for the majority of the summer season.
What needs to be done now is putting the details in the cabinet paper into a formal lease. That should happen in a matter of weeks.
The CIC is currently crystallising a vision for the botanic garden, which has been worked up through a series of meetings.
They have included walkabouts with the US businessman, where he has absorbed ideas for the garden to flourish. The next starts at noon next Friday, June 1.
The last was at the gardens’ "top acreage" across Undercliff Drive, which is hardly visited by the public, but where there is bee-keeping, a weather station and glasshouses.
One of the ideas he was quick to take on board from brainstorming sessions was that of an admission charge.
People had always been opposed to the council doing it, but when one was proposed under CIC stewardship at the first public meeting in January, there was an acceptance of commercial reality.
Mr Curtis told the audience there was no plan to build a wall around the garden and car parking, which had been a council way of collecting a charge, would now be free.
This week he was sticking to the concept of an "honour system" of entry, hoping people would appreciate and support what he was trying to do and not sneak in for free.
This week, the CIC was looking at a figure around the £5 mark for an adult with all sorts of family and regular visitor deals incorporated into the admission structure.
It is also investigating how to increase the 138-space car park, currently shared with the next-door cricket club and Steephill Cove.
Two months after the initial meeting, Curtis announced he was taking catering back "in house".
On Sunday, that became official, under the newly appointed chef from Quay Arts, Martyn Cutler.
The deal had generated an estimated £10,000 a year in rent from the Royal Hotel, and a share of the profits too, but the businessman saw the opportunity for greater income generation, which is what the garden badly needs.
What will follow at Ventnor will be an emphasis on Green energy, Green gardening and Green-houses, better known as glass-rooms, which will be used to educate Island people in horticulture and those from the mainland who may have dropped out of mainstream education.
The education programme, from practical gardening courses on how to prune your rose bush, right up to Royal Horticultural Society accredited courses, will be up and running from September.
There are now guided tours going on, organised by the Friends’ Kate Ingram, to explain the plants and the garden’s interesting history, growing as it did from the Steephill Pleasure Gardens in 1970, a year after the balconied Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest was demolished.
This week, work was taking place to improve the main entrance to the garden to increase space and make it more usable for its estimated 80,000 visitors a year. It is the first, most visible, example of change.
But, like an iceberg, much more has been going on over the past months, and despite what must be frustrating delay caused by dealing with council departments and consulting with residents, businesses and organisations and setting up the new company, the Curtis enthusiasm remains undimmed.
As does that of the chairman of the active botanic garden friends’ society, Phil Le May, who will sit on the CIC board. He believes the takeover will allow the garden to reach whole new levels.
Mr Le May said: "There is a lot of genuine love and pent-up enthusiasm for the garden which is just waiting to be unleashed.
"It’s been a hard slog for me over the last two years as we have tried to find a way forward, but I came to work for the garden 32 years ago because I love the place and have put in crazy hours. Now it will be good for the friends to play a real part in running it.
"An example is that we have just been told by the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership we have won a grant, which we will contribute towards. It will enable every student of the new Ventnor Primary School to learn more about the garden and the flora and fauna.
"That means from September 2013, 360 students will be a part of what we are doing."
Ventnor’s uniqueness, his family connections to horticulture, the potential to create something even more worthwhile out of what could easily have degenerated back to a simple pleasure grounds, are the factors that drive Mr Curtis.
That, and his zeal to grow winners out of commercial losers.