Brainerd council extends city funding of Northland Arboretum
The Northland Arboretum will continue receiving funds from the city through Dec. 31, 2026.
BRAINERD — The city of Brainerd will provide funding for the Northland Arboretum for three years longer than agreed upon in a decision last year.
Council members voted 4-3 Monday, April 3, to extend contributions granted to the Arboretum through the city’s charter through Dec. 31, 2026 after hearing from Executive Director Candice Zimmermann about steps taken over the past year to diversify funding methods. This decision deviates from a split vote last May, promising the funds through the end of 2023.
“It’s been about a year since the 18-month agreement was put into place, and I am happy to say that we’re pleased with our growth and the impact that we’re having to the Brainerd community,” Zimmermann told the council’s Personnel and Finance Committee Monday night.
Discussions about funding for the Arboretum, along with two other Brainerd nonprofits — The Center and Brainerd Community Action — started early last year, a few months after council members amended language in the city’s charter.
Historically, Brainerd’s charter guaranteed a portion of its levied tax dollars to the Northland Arboretum, Brainerd Community Action and to the establishment and maintenance of a program for the benefit of senior citizens or to subsidize a nonprofit senior citizen organization. For consistency’s sake, the City Council — at the recommendation of the Charter Commission — amended the language in 2021 to exclude the names of specific organizations but commit to supporting entities that provide community programs and events and arboretum or greenspace organizations within the city limits of Brainerd.
Previous contracts with the three entities ended in 2022.
After agreeing to contracts with The Center and Brainerd Community Action through 2026, council members debated funding the Arboretum, with concerns arising about the nonprofit being located primarily in Baxter and not receiving similar contributions from the city of Baxter or Crow Wing County.
In fiscal year 2021-22, Brainerd contributed $92,000 to the Arboretum, which made up about 25.5% of its operating budget. The rest came from events (18.8%), grants (17.4%), member and gate fees (15.8%), donations (8%), facility rentals (7%), the gift shop (5.2%), educational revenue (1.3%) and the last 0.5% coming from “other” sources, which includes the city of Baxter.
Council members Gabe Johnson and Mike O’Day were not in favor of funding a nonprofit that was not completely within city limits, while Tad Erickson — who is no longer on the council — said he did not think the city should be in the business of funding select nonprofits.
Those three opposed the idea of funding the arboretum with charter contributions through the end of 2023 — about a year and a half at that point — until the organization could explore other funding mechanisms. The measure passed, though, with the four other council members in favor.
Zimmermann said Monday membership to the Arboretum is increasing each month and was up to 1,359 at the end of February. The percentage of members who live in Brainerd is 24%, which she said is up from 22% last year.
“And I think that’s mainly to do with the impact that we’ve made in our education programming — really building some awareness around there and partnering with the school district to get that nature curriculum out there,” Zimmermann said.
The organization has also been working with other nonprofits and ramping up fundraising efforts to diversify and sustain its funding long-term, though there is still work to do.
Coming up on the halfway mark of the current fiscal year and working on budgeting for next year, Zimmermann said she’s looking to expand on the efforts of the past year but requested the council consider extending the charter funds for another three years to be in line with the contracts with The Center and Brainerd Community Action, and to allow the Arboretum more time to strengthen new funding sources.
Council member Kara Terry, who serves as liaison to the Northland Arboretum Board of Directors, gave her support for the measure, saying Zimmermann has done a good job with her funding plan thus far.
“I believe that she is fulfilling the requests of the council, knowing that making a significant fiscal change and 18 months is quite a task — and a daunting task,” Terry said during the full council meeting Monday night. “So giving them additional time to continue on the path that they're on to diversify their funding, increase membership makes good sense to me.”
Terry was not on the council for the vote last May, another part of which was to create a work group with representatives from Baxter and Crow Wing County to discuss future funding. After being asked how that group was working out, City Administrator Jennifer Bergman said there had been a couple meetings with representatives from both Brainerd and Baxter, where Zimmermann laid out her funding plan, along with fundraising strategies. Bergman said county officials had declined to participate.
Johnson and O’Day retained their opposition to allocating more funds to the Arboretum, voting against the measure Monday night.
Citywide referendums passed in the 1970s and ‘80s to allocate funds to The Center and Brainerd Community Action, Johnson noted, but not for the Arboretum.
“I thought the 18 months we gave them as a landing pad was more than enough,” Johnson said. “And ultimately I just ethically can't support taxing the poorest people in the county to finance the leisure activities of the richest people in the county. It just doesn't seem right.”
While O’Day said he fully supports the Arboretum and believes Zimmermann has done a great job in the past year, he maintained his opposition, saying the council should stick with its vote from last year and follow the same procedure to solicit proposals for the green space charter funding next year.
Council member Kevin Stunek said during Monday’s committee meeting he wasn’t sure he wanted to extend the contract for three full years but would vote in favor of the measure because Zimmeramann had laid out a clear plan.
Council President Kelly Bevans said he would support the measure because it made sense to allocate funds to the Arboretum for the same amount of time as The Center and Brainerd Community Action.
“If we’re going to set a line in the sand, I think it should all be even,” Bevans said.
Bevans, Terry, Tiffany Stenglein and Kevin Stunek voted in favor of the extension, with Jeff Czeczok joining Johnson and O’Day on the opposing side.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .