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Tomatomania event restored, will take place March 8-9

By Miriam Raftery

Photo,left by Andy Franks:  Lauren Magnuson and Tim  Townsley are all smiles at entry of reopened Water Conservation Garden.

February 27, 2024 (Rancho San Diego, CA) – The Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College reopened to the public today, after the Garden’s  Joint Powers Authority agreed to takeover operations from the financially struggling nonprofit group, Friends of the Water Conservation Garden. Following a brief closure,  Interim Executive Director Lauren Magnuson announced that she is “thrilled” that the Garden will be  “in bloom again.”

Hours will be limited initially to Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m.to 2 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m.to 4 p.m.  Education programs such as  Ms. Smarty Plants are temporarily paused until the operational transition is completed. 

The popular “Tomatomania” event has been restored and will be held as originally scheduled March 8-9.

At a three-hour meeting on Feb.23, the JPA board voted unanimously to send a notice of default terminating the Friends operation of the Garden before the expiration of the June 30 operating agreement.  The termination notice comes after the Garden’s former director, Jennifer Pillsbury, ran up roughly a  million dollars in loans to cover salaries and expenses during and after COVID,  debts that Friends is unable to fully repay.  The debts include six-figure loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration,  Mission Funded Finance, and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District.

Friends board president Michael Hager assured the JPA board that Friends will remain open  and not shut down or file for bankruptcy at least until a $250,000 Employee Retention Credit from the federal government arrives. A federal freeze on all ERC funds put Friends in a financial bind, as it had retained employees in anticipation of those funds and later took out a series of loans while trying to stay afloat.  Any funds in the Friends account are expected to be transferred to the JPA as part of the transition process.

“Whatever is done, the Friends Board will work with you to make sure there is a smooth transition,” Hager told the JPA, “and I’m profoundly sorry for the situation.”

The JPA,  which is a 501c3,  did operate the Garden in the past,  before the Friends Board was created. Initially the Friends board focused on fundraising   Going forward, short-term, five of the JPA’s member agencies (Helix and Otay Water Districts, Sweetwater Water Authority, the County Water Authority and the City of San Diego) will each put in approximately $5,000 a month through June to reopen the Garden and cover bare-bones operations estimated at $100,00 to $120,000 for March through June.

Numerous speakers at the JPA meeting urged that interim director Lauren Magnuson and Facilities Manager Tim Townsley be retained.  The JPA agreed, and approved employing  the pair to run the Garden along with volunteers, while additional funds are sought to restore education programs and other programs.

Photo by Andy Franks, left: Tim Townsley and Lauren Magnuson share fist bump at  Garden's reopening.

GCCCD Chancellor  Lynn Neault agreed to cover insurance for the Garden under the district’s policy, until the JPA can secure its own.  All volunteers will be required to be live scanned and fingerprinted, to comply with district policies.

Steven Zolezzi, president of the volunteers, told the board, “We’re dedicated. We’re a family. We have a lot of resources you can bring to focus.” Volunteers are working to reopen the gift shop  and could also help write grants, teach classes, and help in other ways,  he noted.

Volunteers and supporters of the Garden packed the hearing room at Otay Water District for the JPA meeting.   Carol  Stevens, an avid Gardener, said she’s reduced her water usage to tier one. “This is what I learned at the Garden,” she said.  Others spoke of bringing children and grandchildren to enjoy the Garden.

Vince McGrath, a long-time volunteer,  donor, and master Garden participant, urged JPA members to “put your heads together and we can figure this out.”

Chancellor Neault, a member of the JPA, assured the public, ”I am deeply committed to keeping the Garden open.”

Chair Mark Robak made clear he also supports the Garden’s mission, noting, “the cheapest form of water savings is conservation.”  He also praised the efforts of volunteers at the Water Conservation Garden, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Photo, right:  Joint Powers Authority members will assume operations of the Garden,courtesy of the JPA.

JPA member Kathleen Hedberg, also a director  on the Helix Water District board,  praised the outcome as a “success.” In an email to constituents, she added, ”The long term plan is still to be determined...but in the meantime, if you need inspiration on what to do for your landscape—please come by and spread the word!”

File photo by Miriam Raftery, left: The Water Conservation Garden has many walkways and displays of water-wise landscaping ideas

You can learn more about the Water Conservation Garden at www.TheGarden.org.


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