Navarre Park’s Trojan butterfly won’t fly

We want to preface this with a simple statement of goal. We want the Panhandle Butterfly House to succeed. They are an asset to our community.

But, in May we said: this is a bad idea. Dropping a small nonprofit program that has no stable revenue stream or even its own book keeper into a million-dollar facility and expecting them to furnish it, maintain it and still be able to fulfill their mission is ludicrous.

We look at the tax records for the Panhandle Butterfly House, and what we find is that they pull in less than $22,000 a year (based on 2016 records, most recent available). Their current expenses for the small facility they are in are nearly $37,000.

It doesn’t take an accountant to deduce that an organization functioning under those numbers is going to have trouble being successful under such financial strain.

Just a few short months before demolition, and the county may be singing the same tune.

As County Administrator Dan Schebler put it, “the goal I have been tasked with is to ensure that the tax payer money and investment that the county makes will be sustained and maintained.”

That is a very graceful way of saying he doesn’t think they can afford it either.

We do not want to see this asset, this jewel in the crown of Navarre, go away. But they are in a tight spot.

The butterfly folks were never really consulted on the plan to begin with. Just talking to Mary Salinas that becomes apparent. She points out the facility would more than fulfill their goals at half the proposed size, that the vivarium is too tall to be suitable for viewing the butterflies. And talking to the volunteers they asked where are they supposed to plant their gardens with all that concrete?

Salinas shared these recommendations with the county. Those cost saving recommendations have gone…all of nowhere.

Why? Because this was County Commissioner Rob Williamson’s way of erecting a monument to himself. It was a way of bribing the butterfly house folks into supporting his park plan. (See our editorial “The $7 million monument and its million-dollar mansion” published May 24, 2018.) In part, the editorial reads, “For years Williamson withheld his recreation funds secretly knowing he would need them for this project. The playground equipment was so neglected it was being held together with duct tape – he believed it would further his case for a park overhaul. And those poor Butterfly House volunteers – their building is falling apart. So instead of investing the funds he had, he came up with a $7 million monument to himself. The butterfly house would be just the thing he needed to get backing from the community. After all, who doesn’t love butterflies?”

And now out of the blue the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is back on the table as a possible alternative location. When Commissioner Sam Parker brought forward the idea, he was summarily shot down by Commissioner Rob Williamson. Bill Andersen of the wildlife refuge also balked at the idea, saying he was upset to have his organization talked about without him there.

But in emails gathered through public records, it turns out Williamson and Andersen have been discussing the idea again extensively as of late. Williamson even went as far as saying the $1 million for the PBH would likely follow it to a new location. He also said he wanted the vote on the butterfly house “sooner rather than later.”

When we asked Andersen about it, he did not own up to the emails but did sort of say the plan was back on the table. After the nasty response on social media last time the idea was discussed, we can understand his hesitation to discuss it.

At first look that seems like an ideal plan. The two nonprofits’ missions coincide, and there is no shortage of native butterflies on the refuge’s property.

The Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge has demonstrated a knack for fundraising and their financial standing seems strong with a strong base of donors. The PBH could really benefit from that support.

But the problem is, the ECWR’s property is already jam packed. They have moved forward with plans to maximize use of the property. They have a development order. They have submitted site plans and are waiting on permits.

So where are you going to squeeze in a learning center and vivarium? What about bus parking for the school groups that typically visit the PBH? What about daily foot traffic by the potential hundreds like the PBH sees now?

This is another feather in the refuge’s cap, but it may not be best for the PBH.

The butterfly house’s executive board is hesitant to support that plan. Gee, wonder why?

With the impending demolition of their current home, the Panhandle Butterfly House could be in jeopardy of having no home at all if something is not worked out.

No one has said the Navarre Park option is off the books, but we think it is pretty apparent that the current plan will not fly.

And as the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce learned the hard way, living on county property is no long-term guarantee.

We love the Butterfly House. We love the mission of conservation and education. We love seeing faces light up as they experience the vivarium for the first time. We love kids in butterfly costumes and neighbors inspired to plant native in their garden.

But the Butterfly House’s future is currently looking even worse than before. Instead of a facility that is going to bankrupt them, they could be looking at having no facility at all.

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