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Think Big: Save the Botanical Center

To Raise Revenue: Link With Partners, Get Creative


Des Moines Register

May 13, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The Des Moines Botanical Center ran a deficit of almost $450,000 last year. That has some people thinking about closing its doors.

Bad idea. Bad timing.

If running a deficit becomes grounds for shutting public attractions, Iowa is in trouble. Des Moines would have lost its zoo years ago. There would be no parks or libraries or science center or art center or other amenities relying on support from taxpayers. The Botanical Center is another of those attractions that exist to improve the quality of life for Iowans.

And it does.

Thousands of Iowa schoolchildren have taken field trips to the center. Iowa couples have been married in the gardens. High school students have had their class pictures taken and danced at senior proms there. It's been a place where memories are made, and it provides educational opportunities for Iowans. Last year, about 83,000 people visited the Botanical Center's meeting rooms and gardens.

The idea of closing the Botanical Center couldn't come at a worse time. It's located on 14 acres of riverfront property a stone's throw from downtown, a busy recreational trail and the planned Principal Riverwalk. Lots of exciting things are happening nearby.

To staunch the flow of red ink, proponents must find ways to draw more visitors and increase the center's revenue. That requires some big thinking.

And when it comes to big thinking, there's no one better than Terry Rich, chief executive of the Des Moines Zoo Foundation. In the two years since the nonprofit foundation took over management, it has closed a nearly $500,000 annual budget deficit. Attendance has grown from 244,000 visitors in 2003 to 311,000 last year.

Events such as Kids RAGBRAI and the Zoo Brew attract new visitors. And there is talk about expanding.

So what would Terry Rich do with the Botanical Center?

Maybe partner with another entity. Heck, maybe the rain-forest project. Add on to it. Grow a marijuana display to show parents what the plant looks like, he suggested. Or maybe acquire the world's biggest Venus Flytrap, one that could "suck down a cow" and bring in crowds. Maybe add a center for breast-cancer patients, he said, because the gardens are therapeutic and the dome "looks like a breast."

Now that's the kind of big, creative thinking Des Moines needs more of.

Making the Botanical Center a success may mean seeking a private foundation to operate it rather than the Des Moines Water Works, the current manager. It will definitely mean finding someone like Terry Rich to be a full-time, creative and passionate advocate with a line on where to find a giant Venus Flytrap.