Chad Truxall and Bruce Jaildagian, Executive Director and Founder of the Marine Discovery Center, respectively, have both spent their careers working to protect and restore Florida’s coastal and Indian River Lagoon ecosystems. Stemming from an informal gathering of city officials and biologists in 1992, their collective efforts have culminated in the formation one of Volusia County’s most treasured resources. Chad and Bruce shared the story behind the Center and explained how, for a non-profit, it’s equally important to treat it like a business in order to accomplish the objectives set forth by the founders.
“Prior to living in New Smyrna Beach, I spent a number of years working with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium,” Bruce said. “As I had more interactions with the dolphins, it became clear that these intelligent marine mammals had no place in captivity. At that point, I switched sides to marine animal protection and spent 10 years working with Greenpeace International. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the ocean. I also grew extremely fond of the backwaters and estuaries surrounding New Smyrna Beach. I started a sea turtle patrol program while working with Greenpeace, which caught the attention of the City Commissioner. We became friends and started to brainstorm ways to protect our natural resources. We started meeting with others in 1992.”
According to Bruce, not much happened in the early years. From 1992 until 1995, it was really just a group of biologists and city officials getting together to discuss ways to protect and restore various waterways. It wasn’t until 1995 that regular monthly meetings began. The City Commissioner, who eventually became Mayor, was a regular attendee, and by 1997, the Marine Discovery Center was officially incorporated.
“The idea for the Center partially originated from a couple who came over from Clearwater, FL,” Bruce said. “They bought an old sewage treatment plant and turned it into an aquarium and a space for marine animal rehabilitation. Our goal was to do the same at the abandoned sewage treatment plant on the North Causeway.”
Bruce continued, “It was tough in the early days. We had lots of energy and passion, but no money. We also didn’t have much of a business plan. However, we kept going and eventually got our first grant in 1998.”
The Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program gave the Marine Discovery Center $20,000. That provided an initial boost of forward momentum that allowed the Center to plot along until the next big grant in 2000. According to Bruce, this was the grant that really propelled the Center forward.
“The grant in 2000 came from the Florida Inland Navigation District,” he said. “This grant allowed us to purchase an educational boat and build a boat dock. We were also able to hire some teachers, develop a curriculum and move into the old water treatment plant.”
By 2002, the Marine Discovery Center had its first official boat tour. A group of fifth graders were shown the beauty and uniqueness of the lagoon and estuaries from a new and exciting vantage point. Not long after that first boat tour, the Center started renting kayaks, which, along with the boat tours, helped to generate new revenue. Bruce, and the Center’s one paid employee, worked hard to fill the boat and reached out to the community to spread the word. This was also around the time when Chad Truxall came onboard.
Chad, who’s originally from South Florida, shared the story behind his own journey and how he rose to the position of Executive Director. “In 2001, I was asked by the principal of the high school where I was teaching Marine Biology to come to a meeting at the Center,” Chad said. “From the start, I wanted to support the initiatives however I could. Starting with the summers of 2001 and 2002, I worked with Bruce as a volunteer and would help with tours and with getting kids over to do the programs. From there, we started doing summer camps. I was still teaching at the high school, but would spend my summers teaching at the Center. In 2004, I was officially hired to take on the role of Education Coordinator.”
Chad’s role as Education Coordinator provided a stepping stone into the K-12 programming space. They reached out to more schools and got more kids involved. As part of the Center’s mission, Chad also started to focus some of his efforts on restoration. He worked with the Nature Conservancy, the Oyster Reef Program and the Marine Resource Council to support various initiatives. From there, Chad’s focus naturally evolved into understanding what it takes to be an effective non-profit nature center. By identifying other successful centers in Florida and throughout the country, he put together a strong foundational strategy for sustainable growth.
“We’re at a point now where we’re looking at ways to diversity our revenue streams,” Chad said. “We look at programs that are high profitability and high impact cost centers versus those that are low profit and low impact. Part of what we do on a continually basis is to assess these centers for their effectiveness. That includes looking at special events, donor opportunities, planned giving, boats, camps, our gift shop and various other ways to generate revenue for the Center.”
Today, Bruce, who still actively supports the mission and vision of the Marine Discovery Center, serves as more of an ambassador role. He’s proud of his accomplishments and of what the Center has done for the environment and the community, but he relies on people like Chad to continue the work.
As Executive Director, Chad enjoys the fact that the possibilities surrounding the Center and its impact on the County still represent a blank slate of opportunities. “My day to day is diverse and, even though it can be challenging to not have certain funds at times, it’s such an empowering opportunity to lead the Center,” he said. “As a private non-profit we have some barriers, but what I really enjoy is that there’s still something unique whether related to the environment or the community that we’re able to get involved with. There’s so much purpose in what we do. It’s very rewarding.”
Looking ahead, the Marine Discovery Center’s vision for the future includes: An engaged community that contributes to the advocacy and science of the Indian River Lagoon; Hands-on, feet-wet education and conservation programming that emphasizes the “real” Florida; A desire to become the regional resource for Indian River Lagoon restoration; A nature center and site that encourages community engagement through the sharing of resources, ideas and opportunities to protect the Indian River Lagoon; A desire to become a sustainable ecotourism destination through the Blue Community Consortium. Chad and Bruce are also excited about a new amphitheater opening in April 2020. The new space will be used as a platform for community engagement and gatherings through music and various events.
Both Chad and Bruce shared some great advice, not only for aspiring entrepreneurs, but also for those in charge of leading teams.
“Just keep going,” Bruce said. “Even when things get tough, you have to just take the next step. It also takes a lot of passion. For me, it was always more from the heart than from the brain. I knew how special the area was and just wanted to share it with everyone. That’s really what carried me forward.”
“I agree with Bruce that passion and persistence are essential,” Chad said. “You’ll have to take risks and be very persistent to succeed. When it comes to working with other people, it can be tough. It’s important to be humble and to understand that you’re not always the smartest person in the room. Put people around you who are smarter and let them shine. Let them do great things. Let go of the ‘it has to be this way or no way’ type thinking. What makes us successful is having the ability to share our talents and having open dialogue. Open communication is also critical. Openness creates cohesion and people want to be part of that.”