Photo: Greg Luberecki / Selby Gardens
"Being turned down was a real test of my leadership," says Jennifer Rominiecki, CEO of Selby Gardens in Sarasota.
"Everything one does as a leader is calculated risk."
CEO, Selby Gardens, Sarasota
Jennifer Rominiecki knew she was in for a challenge when she became CEO of Sarasota’s Selby Gardens seven years ago — but maybe not quite as big of a challenge as it turned out.
“This site has the world’s best scientifically documented collections of orchids and bromeliads, terrific talent and an amazing bayfront location,” says Rominiecki, who had been in senior leadership at New York Botanical Garden before joining Selby. “But the infrastructure was in really poor condition. We were using old buildings that were repurposed. Our collections were housed on the ground level in a flood zone. We were in vital need of shoring up our infrastructure from day one. It was crystal clear what needed to be done to make us sustainable for the long term and to preserve our history.”
Her first shot at upgrading the Selby campus — a $92-million master plan that included a five-story parking garage, a roof-top restaurant and multiple upgrades to Selby’s science, education and welcome facilities — drew opposition from the surrounding neighborhood over concerns of increased traffic and noise. Following spirited community debate, Sarasota’s City Commission rejected the plan.
“Being turned down was a real test of my leadership,” Rominiecki says. “After taking about 24 hours to mourn the decision, I said, ‘OK, what can we do to get this done?’ So, we dusted ourselves off and kept going.”
The revised plan, which included a smaller garage with a groundfloor restaurant, was approved by the city, and construction on the first, $51.6-million phase has begun. Included are a new welcome center, a new plant research center with a library, a new herbarium, as well the four-story parking deck and a nearly 50,000-sq.-ft. solar array. Plans also include new greenhouse facilities, an education pavilion and a renovation of the garden’s 1930s-era Payne Mansion.
Soon after, she was presented with another challenge: An offer to take over operations of Historic Spanish Point, a 30-acre nature preserve about 10 miles south of Selby’s 15-acre campus downtown. Historic Spanish Point had been struggling financially, but there was risk in a takeover for Selby, since Selby would have to pay off Spanish Point’s debt and Rominiecki would be assuming responsibility for the site during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020.
“But the more I thought about it, the better I thought the idea was,” Rominiecki says. “It was about saving a community treasure. It has archeological mounds. Both campuses are waterfront. Both have these iconic women in their history. You have Marie Selby here and Bertha Palmer there. And at the same time, it would give us the chance to really tell the story of native Florida plants.”
The risk has paid off. Attendance at Spanish Point has quadrupled. Combined, the two attractions drew 290,000 visitors during the last fiscal year — a 65% increase from when Rominiecki joined Selby in 2015. Revenue is up 75% since 2015.
Rominiecki’s latest challenge came at the end of September with Hurricane Ian. The storm caused some damage and took down numerous trees at Historic Spanish Point. But the sites were spared the worst and will rebound, she says.
“Everything one does as a leader is calculated risk,” she says. “That’s how you can advance and move forward — because if you’re not going to take any risks, you’re going to be stuck.”