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.