Its been a challenging fundraising year for the Garfield Park Conservatory, but the urban botanical center reached its $9 million capital campaign goal in 2008 despite a depressed economy.

“I never had any doubt that we can achieve this,” said Eunita Rushing, the president of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the center’s nonprofit arm. “It took us a little longer than I anticipated, but I always felt that it was possible.”

As a nonprofit, the 100-year-old conservatory, located at 300 N. Central Park, receives just 10 percent of its funding from the Chicago Park District, the rest coming from private support, membership drives and paid programming. The alliance started its campaign in 2005, hoping to raise money for the conservatory and to help complete a new exhibit: “Sugar from the Sun,” which opened in early 2008. The ambitious, permanent exhibit tells the story of photosynthesis-how plants convert sunlight to sugar, the food source that sustains all plant life.

But the Sugar from the Sun exhibit-which uses light and sound effects, and actual plant life-was conceived much earlier.

In 2002, the conservatory received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was instrumental in creating the exhibit but whose opening was postponed several times because of construction delays.

The NFS grant allowed the conservatory to gut rehab the 6,000-square-feet sweet house where the Sugar exhibit would be housed. The space needed extensive work, Rushing said. But renovation costs and the installation of the plant life, sound and lighting ballooned costs to $4 million-$1 million over initial estimates.

To meet its goal, the alliance launched a capital improvement campaign in 2005, and since the NFS grant didn’t cover the exhibit’s entire cost, the alliance also reached out to the Kresge Foundation, which supports large capital projects. In 2006, the alliance received a grant of $500,000 from Kresge, but it came with a small hitch: the alliance had to establish new individual and corporation donors.

“They wanted to give us motivation to build in those areas,” Rushing said. “We’ve done very well with foundations and memberships, but there were some areas we needed to strengthen in terms of building our fundraising capabilities.”

The campaign’s goal of $9 million was for the exhibit’s installation, the conservatory’s operation cost for the next three years and programming for its centennial celebration early last year. In March 2008, the Sugar From the Sun Exhibit finally opened. In April, the conservatory hosted its 100 year anniversary. In December, the conservatory alliance wrapped up its capital fundraising campaign after reaching its goal.

But the effort, Rushing noted, was tough because of the economy as well several other groups vying for the same few dollars.

“So what that means is that there is more competition for the dollars that exist,” Rushing said.

During the three-year campaign, the Kresge grant brought in 43 percent of first-time individual donors. In the campaign’s final four months, 44 percent of contributions were from first-time donors. The conservatory also received first-time foundation support from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, John R. Halligan Charitable Fund and Jocarno Fund.

“We have seen a growth in our donors, and we are hoping to capitalize on that growth by sustaining those supporters and adding new ones,” said Rushing, adding that the campaign became a teaching tool for how the alliance would shape future programming and fundraising. “This is not the first capital campaign we’ve done, but what we are doing is sort of grooming ourselves so that we can take on larger projects.”

Rushing noted other long-range goals, including completing renovations to several buildings on the conservatory’s campus, establishing new board members and making new donors permanent. The alliance also wants to raise the conservatory’s visibility through more quality programming.

When the alliance was founded nearly 100 years ago, it had about 10,000 visitors. Today, it’s 200,000, with international visitors comprising 10 percent of the conservatory’s attendance.

“We just like to continue to provide programming that interest the public so that they will continue to visit.. and support our efforts,” said Rushing.