Snug Harbor is more than just a cultural destination

Lynn Kelly believes the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden can be more than just a tourist attraction for local Staten Islanders.

She believed that when she left the city’s Economic Development Corporation to join the organization as its president and CEO, and she believes that even more now almost three years into the job.

Kelly, a native Staten Islander who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at NYU, spent her first year on the job getting up to speed, understanding the breadth of what the organization was managing and re-building relationships it had lost over time. She quickly found through her work that Snug Harbor had various strategic plans that sat on the shelf for years. There were great ideas in each plan, she said, but none of them were tactical in nature. As such, she knew the organization needed a true five-year business plan.

Kelly immediately hit the ground running, searching for funding for the business plan, which she eventually secured through the Staten Island Foundation. Working with The Whelen Group Inc., Snug Harbor was able to construct a five-year plan that outlines a strategy for utilizing all its assets — including its 80 acres of park land, 28 buildings, unique architectural complexes and historic landscapes.

“It’s completely changed the way Snug Harbor does business, and also helped change our mission,” Kelly said of the plan.

Snug Harbor used to be an organization strictly focused on cultural content. Now, it is looking at itself as the steward for economic activity, fueled by all the assets it has at its location. After all, Snug Harbor is the largest ongoing adaptive reuse project in America, and The Music Hall at Snug Harbor is the second oldest in the city, behind only Carnegie Hall.

“Due to a range of social, economic and political factors today, Snug Harbor is poised to finally take its place among the city’s leading destinations,” the strategic plan reads. “The sustained interest by both the public and private sectors in adaptive reuse, the demand for open spaces that integrate a ‘live-work-play’ approach, the increasing need to preserve/create public green space, and the call to preserve affordable rental space for small businesses and cultural and other nonprofit organizations all bode well for Snug Harbor. With its distinctive structure as both a property manager and a programmer, Snug Harbor has a diversified funding model that provides a strong platform to pursue long-term financial sustainability, and is ahead of the curve in terms of financial management trends underway in the nonprofit space.”

Kelly said the decisions Snug Harbor must make as both a cultural organization and a landlord often rub against each other, and it has had trouble grasping that duality in the past. The goal of the business plan is to make the organization a vibrant cultural destination for the entire city, while also being economically sustainable.

“Nonprofits do not mean not profitable,” she said. “We can be economically sustainable in this environment. It’s challenging, but we can do it if we follow a succinct plan.”

Snug Harbor is currently in the second year of the business plan.

Currently, the organization is recognizing that its greatest assets are its spaces — its gardens and outdoor galleries, for example. So, Kelly said, the organization has turned into more of a presenting model, where it looks for talent to come to Snug Harbor to book space.

To help promote Snug Harbor, the organization has also re-constructed its board of directors. It has 16 members now, compared to 23 not long ago. Four new members have joined in the last year, and the board members have increased their contribution to the organization, Kelly said. Snug Harbor will continue to focus on board development, hosting a board retreat in October to tackle issues such as expansion, since they see themselves as a regional destination.

“It is absolutely critical that we build our board of trustees with members that are also off Staten Island,” Kelly said.

They also need to be prepared for the expected increase in visitors to the area. With the New York Wheel slated to open in 2016, a slew of tourists are expected to flow into St. George. If Snug Harbor could attract 10 percent of the projected increased visitation, that would be almost an 80 percent increase in its visitors, Kelly said. As such, the second half of the organization’s business plan focuses on infrastructure upgrades so that they can be ready.

Kelly hopes Snug Harbor’s recent accolades will also help spread the word. Over the summer, Snug Harbor was the recipient of the 2013 Cultural Award at the Twelfth Annual Neighborhood Achievement Awards. The award is given annually to cultural institutions that have made major and significant contributions to a neighborhood and continue to enhance the artistic and educational fabric of New York City.

Snug Harbor was recognized for both Heritage Farm — the largest farm in the city at two acres that serves as an educational facility as well as an economic engine with the food it produces — as well as the Snug Harbor Artist Residency Program — in which artists live on campus rent free and receive stipends to perfect their craft.

“I feel that it’s galvanized the staff here and the board in a way that we hadn’t before,” Kelly said of the award.

“It was really the exclamation point in what I was saying before — that people are noticing our hard work.

“Snug Harbor is going to be a city-wide cultural destination, and we’re going to be back on the map.”

Kelly is also excited for the North Shore’s upcoming focus in NYC & Company’s “Neighborhood x Neighborhood” program, an initiative designed to increase visitation, support local businesses and encourage exploration in areas outside traditional tourist locations across the five boroughs. Ever since it was announced last month, Snug Harbor’s phones have been ringing off the hook.

“You’ll never hear ‘forgotten borough’ out of my mouth,” Kelly said.

“While there’s no question that, on paper, Staten Island hasn’t received the same equity as other boroughs, we also haven’t put ourselves out there to let the public know all the good things that we have to offer, and this is our chance.”

Ultimately, Snug Harbor must ensure that it becomes, and remains, a place that people want to visit, want to rent from and is a place of which they are proud.

“It’s really important to have an attractive user experience,” Kelly said. “You can have the greatest exhibition in the world, but if you come here and can’t find a parking spot and the lighting isn’t good…you won’t return. And we want people to return.”