Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Airlie Gardens rallies through pandemic with surging portfolio and heightened revenue

Seemingly immune to pandemic-related economic downturn, Airlie Gardens has thrived this year, with a skyrocketing investment portfolio and increased gate revenues. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—The Airlie Gardens Foundation — the nonprofit organization that manages the investment portfolio of the 67-acre park in New Hanover County — has surged in recent months, with unrealized gains of $785,000 between July and November of this year. For comparison, the foundation’s investment portfolio yielded just over $201,000 in unrealized gains during the same span in 2019. 

Tara Duckworth, director of New Hanover County Parks and Gardens, said this money represents the investment gains of the foundation’s endowment, which is bolstered annually by at least $200,000 in Airlie Gardens funds. Financial documents maintained by the county list Airlie Gardens’ total assets at $5.08 million as of June 30, 2020.

“So basically, it’s what the reaction to the market is,” Duckworth said. “So you can see, this year the market is doing very well. Our investments are the same, it’s just obviously dependent upon the market.” 

Janine Powell, director of Airlie Gardens donor relations, said that after New Hanover County purchased Airlie Gardens in 1999, the county made a commitment to allocate money for a certain number of years into an endowment for the park. The foundation’s assets are technically separated from the bulk of other county assets and are audited separately. Powell said Airlie Gardens makes payments to the county twice annually, and through its own revenue is largely able to fund many projects.

“The more that we’re able to put in, the more the endowment grows, and when the stock market is performing well, then it grows even more,” Powell said. 

The foundation is staffed by an 11-person board of directors; nine members are appointed by the board of commissioners, as is one descendant of the Corbett family — the Corbett Package Company bought the Airlie land in 1948 for $150,000. One member of the board of commissioners is similarly appointed to the Airlie Gardens foundation. Rob Zapple was appointed as the foundation’s board of commissioners representative in December 2019. 

According to Zapple, the foundation’s portfolio is substantially managed by Ron Copley, who runs an investment company. Copley is married to New Hanover County attorney Wanda Copley, who was the president of the N.C. Azalea Festival in 2003, and was involved as county attorney in the purchase of Airlie Gardens from the Corbett family in 1999, according to the Azalea Festival website.

“It was an expensive purchase, but the Board of Commissioners saw the value to the citizens of preserving this historic garden,” according to the Azalea Festival website. The 1999 purchase was for $10.5 million, and according to Airlie Gardens’ website, a portion of that cost came from grant funding. 

Ron Copley said in an email that questions about the portfolio’s growth should be answered by Airlie Gardens management. Powell and Duckworth said they did not have details about the portfolio’s contents immediately available.

Airlie Gardens has seen a larger proportion of locally-based visitors this year compared to previous years. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

While many sectors of the tourism and events industry have stuttered this year due to pressures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Airlie Gardens has maintained a robust income throughout 2020. 

According to Powell, during this quarter, 80% of Airlie Gardens’ visitors were North Carolinians. In the same span last year, Powell said that number was at 40%. 

Visitation from Airlie Gardens members is up 50% this quarter compared to last year, and total gross income between July and November 2020 was $1.15 million — nearly double that of the same time frame in 2019, when gross income amounted to just under $600,000.

Meanwhile, costs have gone down. While total expenses between July and November 2019 amounted to $401,000, that figure came out to $330,000 during the time frame of this year. 

According to minutes of the November 2020 meeting of the Airlie Gardens Foundation Board, Hank Estep, the treasurer, reported that gate revenue increased 50% compared to this time last year, while the gardens spent less on advertising this year.

“We really did a complete and total pivot in the way we do all operations in the gardens when we reopened April 30,” Powell said. “So we’re really seeing a reflection of people getting outside and using their leisure time in a different way than they normally would since they’re not traveling.” 

Powell said 65% of visitors to the gardens this year have been residents of New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, reflecting a surge in hometown visitation at a site that would normally draw large out-of-state crowds in a typical year. 

Further, revenue from total “Wedding and Garden Events” increased nearly 30% this year when comparing the July-November window of 2019 and 2020 — this includes revenue from ceremonies, portraits and related charges. During the 2020 window, revenue from these sources was just under $27,000 

While many large weddings on Airlie Gardens’ calendar have been postponed until next year, couples do have the option to hold their ceremony as an elopement, and are still able to pay for wedding portraits on Airlie Gardens grounds. 

“We continue to pivot,” Powell said. “And we’re just really happy that we are an outdoor venue, and that we do have the luxury of being able to give people the opportunity to visit some place, be socially distant, and feel safe during a pandemic. And we do not take that lightly. And we are very grateful for that.” 

Send tips and comments to Preston at preston@localdailymedia.com

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