Alan Olds is more accustomed to nurturing things than fighting them. As a former garden leader and member at El Oasis Community Garden for the last five years, he has helped dozens of Lower Highland residents find and cultivate plots at the roughly 22,000-square-foot green space at 1847 W. 35th Ave.
That changed when he got a surprise call from Violeta Garcia, then-executive director of Denver Urban Gardens, earlier this month.
“She informed us that most of the garden was being sold, and she expressed her regret that it was necessary,” said Olds, who resigned as a garden leader last week after meeting with Garcia in person. “She also had some explanation of DUG’s financial situation — and why the board of directors felt that selling it was essential for their survival.”
Many El Oasis gardeners were shocked by the announcement, which amounted to 30 days’ notice to vacate El Oasis in advance of a sale that won’t be finalized until December. Despite past financial challenges, the nonprofit had always been able — every other year — to pay down the line of credit it used to operate its gardens.
But starting in 2018, weak fundraising totals, expiring national grants (including $100,000 for DUG’s Healthy Seedlings program) and an ever-expanding number of gardens rendered them unable to do that, said Ramonna Robinson, chairwoman of DUG’s board. Once the pandemic arrived, she said, they had no other choice but to raise cash through a property sale.
“Nobody wants to see even part of that garden go away,” she said of El Oasis. “But it became the best option for us.”
Out of the 180 gardens that DUG manages in the metro area — including 120 community gardens and 70 school gardens — only three are owned by the nonprofit, while the rest are owned by schools, churches, private groups and others. Two of them aren’t profitable: DUG’s Shoshone garden is too small to develop, while its Pecos garden is too complicated from a zoning standpoint, Robinson said. That left El Oasis, the sale of which would give DUG cash to pay down its $500,000-plus in debt, as well as provide reserves for an uncertain future.
The problem is that El Oasis, one of the biggest community gardens in Denver, hosts about 40 shared garden plots and has often acted as the flagship for a nonprofit that boasts 17,500 volunteer gardeners. The fact that DUG is under contract with developer Caliber Construction to sell two-thirds of El Oasis for $1.2 million is a desertion of the nonprofit’s mission to secure and support community green spaces, gardeners said.
“The land was unmistakably intended to be used as a public, community garden in perpetuity,” gardeners said in a statement emailed to The Denver Post in mid-September, noting the land was sold to DUG for $1 in 1988. “(It was) not to be resold at a great windfall to cover administrative debts run up by DUG.”
However, the developers who donated the land did not secure a written statement promising it would stay a garden in perpetuity, giving DUG the right to sell it, according to James Rodriguez, a real estate agent whose family has gardened at El Oasis for 11 years.
“Selling it was the easiest path,” said Rodriguez. “(DUG) did not distribute the load of this outrageous financial burden, regardless of how it was attained, among all the gardens. They didn’t even put it on the open market to get the highest price.”
The discord between El Oasis gardeners and DUG led Garcia, who took the job as executive director in December, to resign Tuesday. She declined to comment for this article, but DUG released a statement thanking her while saying the board was “is in the process of determining the next steps for selecting a leader for the organization to provide continuity … .”
A group of concerned El Oasis gardeners, who have spent weeks scrutinizing DUG’s publicly available financial records, have described the nonprofit’s costs as way out of line with DUG’s $1.5 million annual budget.
“You can see in their last public 990 (tax form) that they were paying their full-time staff of 11 people nearly $900,000,” said Fanzi Pitzer, an El Oasis gardener. “They also overextended themselves by nearly $1 million in construction (of new gardens) and labor fees. And their operating deficit is $200,000 per year.”
DUG’s tax filings show that leaders borrowed $300,000 against the value of El Oasis in 2013, which grew to about $650,000 within three years. A similar “encumbrance,” or lien, was added to its Pecos property in July of this year for up to $650,000. DUG’s Finance and Accountability grade on Charity Navigator, which ranks nonprofit organizations, is 60 out of 100, or “failing.”
Robinson countered that the competitive nonprofit environment justifies such salaries for its staff. Furthermore, while discussions to sell El Oasis began late last year, it didn’t make sense to reach out to gardeners for fundraising ideas — thus the short notice.
“Charging a fee to all gardeners to cover the cost, as some have suggested, isn’t realistic because a lot of our gardeners can’t afford it and garden to feed their families,” said Robinson. “We felt like having an offer in hand (from Caliber) during a pandemic was our best opportunity.”
Some El Oasis gardeners, and a nearby food bank that benefits from El Oasis produce, say that if the sale goes through, the loss will be immediately noticeable.
“El Oasis has been a great way for people to connect with neighbors who are food insecure,” said Greg Pratt, executive director of the nearby Bienvenidos Food Bank, which gets weekly donations of fresh, organic produce from El Oasis. “We serve 200 families per week, and fresh produce is our biggest cost by far. El Oasis’ loss isn’t huge (for the food bank), but every little bit counts.”
Since early September, gardeners have been rallying to preserve the space by creating a protest website, saveeloasis.com, circulating a change.org petition (with more than 2,000 signatures so far) and encouraging angry residents and gardeners to email DUG and developer Caliber Construction. That Denver-based company intends to build a pair of duplexes on top of it, leaving the remaining third of the garden without pedestrian access (the plot will face an alley, DUG officials confirmed).
“If this sale doesn’t close, Denver Urban Gardens will cease to exist,” Robinson warned. “It would be counter to everything these gardeners are trying to accomplish with not only their garden, but nearly 200 other ones” as well.
Regardless of the outcome, supporting DUG will be difficult after this violation of public trust, said Andy Karsian, who has gardened at El Oasis for 16 years.
“Our priority right now is raising awareness that this is happening,” he said. “This is our oasis in the city, and when it’s gone, it’s not coming back.”
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