Gumbo Limbo is often called a jewel in Boca Raton – not only a local favorite for generations, but also a highly desirable destination for eco-tourists from around the world. Sadly, the setting for this “jewel of Boca Raton” is worn and outdated, and not much is being done about it.
As a 15 year volunteer, 12 year Trustee, and immediate past president of Friends on Gumbo Limbo, a number of people have sought my opinions on the candidates for the open seats on the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District and their FY20/21 budget. I have been in touch with the commissioners and after watching the candidate interviews on BocaFirst.org, I felt that some additional information will be useful to voters. Here goes.
What happened to the new Master Plan?
It’s a no show after spending nearly $200K in tax dollars on planning consultants. The plan was never made public until this article. You can view it here.
Gumbo Limbo is a victim of its own success, serving nearly 200,000 visitors annually. Consultant EDSA and noted aquarium designers Cambridge Seven were paid nearly $200,000 in tax dollars in 2017-2019 for a master plan design concept for new facilities for Gumbo Limbo. Although the Beach & Parks District (District) paid for the EDSA work, the City never presented them with the outcome, nor was it seen by the public.
In the last few years, tens of millions of dollars in funding for the construction of new facilities for Gumbo Limbo was included in the five-year Capital Improvement budget sent by the City to the District. The City’s 2019 Budget for Gumbo Limbo showed $24,800,000 in the plan. Yet this year’s proposed capitol improvement plan showed zero funds for new facilities. This is because the design was shelved indefinitely by City leaders. Instead, under the line item for a Master Plan there is a list of minor (comparably) repairs to be made to the existing facilities totaling ~$1M, plus a separate $3M project to replace and upgrade the pumping system.
Nobody’s saying it’s over but, it’s over.
The City did not like the original EDSA price tag estimate of $50M for the totally new campus facilities, which was deliberately and conservatively on the high side. Yet they declined to take next steps to pursue ways to reduce the costs or seek private funding. The City instead opted to do a City-wide recreational needs assessment to determine if Gumbo Limbo really was a priority for the community and obtain information on how to extend the life of the current facilities for yet another 10+ years. However, the results of the assessment were not released. Then, the Capital Improvement Project(CIP) line item for “Master Plan” quietly devolved from new facilities to a set of repairs to existing buildings and grounds.
Isn’t the District going to invest $3M into Gumbo Limbo for a new water supply system?
Maybe. After over six years of planning, a project to replace the saltwater intakes and pumps which supply fresh water to the aquariums, FAU research, and the sea turtle rehab facility finally went out to bid in late spring. This project had started as a simple replacement project but then doubled in capacity to meet the needs of future expansion of the facility. The District had budgeted $3.2M several years ago and the bids came back in June over 20% higher. The District must decide if they have funds to cover the $3.8M price tag with its curtailed tax revenues. Meanwhile, Gumbo Limbo has implemented a number of fixes to keep the system running and the animals safe over the years.
Has COVID19 made a difference?
Yes indeed. Unfortunately with COVID, visitation at Gumbo Limbo is a fraction of what it used to be and expected to be that way for the foreseeable future. The master plan for new facilities for Gumbo Limbo is shelved indefinitely. Meanwhile, the District can’t manage their golf course project commitments and also take care of the other magnificent parks they are responsible for funding and managing. Revenues from ad valorum taxes will not be increasing. The Commissioners must act as good stewards of the taxpayers money and examine expenditures in light of new facts.
What should be done at Gumbo Limbo now?
I believe the question that should be explored is if the saltwater supply system the right thing to spend over $3M on at this time. Based on what we know now, does it make sense to spend money on pumps when there is no intention of new facilities? What else could be accomplished at Gumbo Limbo with these funds? Is it better to use the money to finish the tower and build a new sea turtle rehab per the design done by EDSA? And on a larger scale, how can the District Commissioners best plan for the future of Gumbo Limbo?
Those new facilities will still be needed at some point as the current ones deteriorate over time, especially as they partially exist in a flood zone and no longer meet current codes such as ADA. There is no single answer, but one should be developed and soon by folks who have the best interests of Gumbo Limbo in mind. This should involve voices from the community as well.
The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District has an intralocal agreement with the City of Boca Raton which agrees to financially support the operating expenses and capital projects for Gumbo Limbo. The City owns and operates the property as part of Red Reef Park under Parks and Recreation. The last significant investment by the District into the main buildings at Gumbo Limbo was in 2011 with $2M for the two new pavilions and aquariums.
Gumbo Limbo is our jewel, a rare coastal green space not only preserved for the future, but continually giving back in terms of environmental education and conservation. Beware single issue candidates who want to go along with the City just to get along. Elect officials in tune with environmental issues, Gumbo Limbo’s mission and who are willing to stand up and advocate, sponsor, follow through on their commitment to the public for Gumbo Limbo. We need leaders who ask questions and consider options in partnership with the City, not be a rubber stamp for the City.