Audubon Institute, Facing Cash Crunch, Has 15,000 Mouths to Feed

NEW ORLEANS – On this week’s Biz Talks podcast, Audubon Institute president and CEO Ron Forman says his organization is facing a major pandemic-related budget crisis – and it certainly doesn’t help that many zoos and aquariums nationwide have been left out of all federal relief programs to date. 

“We don’t have attendance like it was before so we’re not generating the revenue,” said Forman. “We started off losing about $1.1 million dollars per week. After we cut our staff down, we’re still losing about $300,000 to $400,000 thousand per week and we’re running out of money.”

Forman said the Institute – the nonprofit that operates Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Aquarium and other parks and museums – applied for all potential federal support programs but discovered it was too large of an organization (more than 500 employees) to quality for the Paycheck Protection Program or other federal or state funds.

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“At the time, we had about 900 employees, and that automatically disqualified us,” he said. “So we immediately had to first furlough and then lay off some really good people. And that really hurts when you have people that are part of the family, working together and you can’t pay the payroll. Senior staff all took major cuts in their salary, so we’re steady as we go right now but we’ve got to raise some more money.”

Meanwhile, as Forman says, “you can’t furlough the animals.” So Audubon has joined forces with similar organizations nationwide to lobby for federal relief if another round of aid materializes.

“We’re still applying,” he said. “We still hope both sides come together in Washington and realize the crisis this country’s in and we can find some support. Meanwhile, we’re struggling each day. We’ve got a lot of support from the private sector. We raised $7 million from individuals. Major donors stepped up, foundations stepped up and we also had kids stepping up with lemonade stands raising money for their favorite animals. We’ll get past this but it’s a tough time right now.”

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Another potential source of emergency income: last month, Audubon asked to borrow $10 million from an escrow account established in 2018 to pay for a riverfront development project. 

“We raised $15 million – $9 from the Morial Convention Center, $4 million from Audubon and $2 million from New Orleans & Company – to expand the Woldenberg Riverfront Park and connect it with Crescent City Park,” said Forman. “Now, in talking to the mayor, we agreed to slow the project down for about three years but we have $15 million sitting in a bank account ready to go for a project that we can’t build for three years, so we went back to the people who contributed and said, ‘Look, we need the money now.'”

Forman’s pitch is that the city needs functioning museums, zoos, aquariums and other attractions to kick start the tourism economy. New Orleans & Company, he said, unanimously supported the request and the city has been supportive as well.

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“The convention center is the last request and they have some legitimate questions,” he said. “I’m confident they’ll support it. Every time they fill up a hotel room or someone eats at a restaurant, they get a tax, so it’s to their benefit that we get our tourists back in town.”

Forman estimates the Institute needs to make up a shortfall of at least $18 million to get through 2021. The $10 million loan would go a long way toward meeting the deficit and that would be combined with fundraising, increased attendance revenue and loans. 

Despite the challenges, Forman remains eternally optimistic about the future.

“We do have some capital money to build things. You can’t use that for operating but while we’re down we’re going to improve on our facilities, particularly at the foot of Canal Street. Meanwhile, the Four Seasons is building their facility that will open next year. Harrah’s is upgrading its facility. The ferry landing is being rebuilt. Woldenberg Park is going to go through a major improvement. The Aquarium is going to get a major update. So when we come back, we can come back strong, we’re going to be ready.”


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