Allerton Park and Retreat Center Manager Derek Peterson is a glass-half-full kind of guy. But even he admits that “leading an organization through this time is very difficult.”
“I fall back on my board, I fall back on the community, I fall back on my great staff. I’ve been severely lucky to be a part of Allerton at this time,” he said during his annual State of Allerton address, given remotely this year due to COVID-19 precautions. “I won’t say that every day I wake up and think it’s going to be great, but I will tell you every time I come to the park and see my staff members...it’s worth it.”
The pandemic closed the park completely to visitors and most staff in mid-March. About two weeks later southside trails reopened, and the remainder of the outdoor areas followed on May 4.
Volunteers returned in July, retreat center guest rooms were once again available to rent on July 28, and just recently event rentals resumed.
But it also led to about $840,000 in revenue being lost when summer and fall weddings and other events needed to be canceled due to remaining gathering restrictions.
Cutbacks in utilities and other expenses have trimmed the deficit due to those canceled events to about $300,000 to $400,000, Peterson said. A record revenue year up to the spring shutdown was also a godsend, he added.
“We made enough through March to hold us through mid-June before we started to have to spend on a deficit,” he said.
Luckily, the park’s affiliation as a University of Illinois entity will allow them to run at a deficit if needed for up to three years as they recover, a plan that U of I officials have approved.
But the most difficult thing for staff members was the lack of people – including visitors, volunteers and staff, said Allerton Public Engagement Coordinator Mindy Brand.
“It is kind of lonely at the park without our supporters, and it will be a wonderful day when we can all come out after this is over and enjoy the park together again,” she said.
Even through the coronavirus nightmare, Peterson said progress never halted at Allerton. That included online activities including trail walks, concerts and even trivia contests, efforts that Peterson hopes to continue.
He also said collaboration with other U of I departments has helped, such as the broadcast of a Viktor Krauss concert on WILL-FM in the absence of the typical summer concert series.
“WILL was able to give us a voice that had been somewhat taken away from us because people weren’t able to come here for our events. They were looking for content, and we were looking for a voice, so that was a great collaboration,” said Peterson. “We look to expand on those collaboration efforts with U of I departments and our community, and I think we can continue to expand and adjust that collaboration as we move forward.”
As for finances, the park was experiencing a record breaking year in regards to revenue through March, one that helped buffer it for the remainder of the fiscal year that ended on June 30. Of it’s nearly $3 million in revenue, about 25 percent came from endowments, 23 percent from wedding rentals, 18 percent through conferences, and 9 percent through state and institutional funds.
Having endowments at the top of the list is satisfying for Peterson, who has worked towards that goal in order ensure the longterm future of the 1,500-acre park.
“We’ve been building those endowments for the past 10 years, and will continue to lean on those endowments moving forward,” he said. “Endowments are a way to a sustainable future at Allerton Park, so we will continue to push those.”
Endowments not only pay for improvements, but typically require dollars to be set aside for future maintenance as well.
On the expense side, a majority for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was made up of salaries (46 percent) and programming (42 percent).
To save some dollars lost this summer, park officials shut off some systems until recently, including air conditioning, satellite television and in some cases even water heaters.
As for what was accomplished during 2019-20, the park’s director gave a lengthy list during the annual report. It included a complete redo of the Triangle Parterre Garden, gazebo restoration, a renewal of the annual garden, installation of accessible walkways around the perimeter of the Brick Wall Garden, and new furnishings in some mansion guest rooms.
There is also a pledge to spruce up the Allerton Mansion library, which will include outfitting it with better technology infrastructure.
Next up is the conversion of the former ice house near the visitor’s center into an artist-in-residence facility, with the goal of melding nature, art and history to inspire park goers.
“Restoring Robert Allerton’s original ice house to serve as lodging for artists and naturalists will recreate the intimate experience Mr. Allerton provided his guests,” said Peterson, who took the chance to point out that Mr. Allerton was an artist, brought works to the park that are still there, and hosted artists in his home.
Other upcoming projects include a more engaging Visitor’s Center, resurfacing of the main parking lot and additional mansion room updates.
Also in his report, Peterson reported:
–The Greenhouse Cafe “still exists,” but is still closed due to gathering restrictions. He said it is difficult to socially distance in the small space, but still “hopes to be open this fall.”
–2020 marks the 50th year since the National Park Service registered the Robert Allerton Estate as a National Historic Place.
–The year 2021 will mark 75 years since the park was donated from the Allerton family to the University of Illinois.
–The moving of the Visitor’s Center into the adjacent Regency, where offices will be moved, is an ongoing project.
–Funds have been donated to replace about 140 Norwood Spruce trees along the Allerton entryway. Forty have been planed, 30 more will be replaced next spring and the remainder over the next eight to nine years.