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DM Officials Ponder Ways to Grow Interest in Botanical Center

Plans for Cultivating Public Interest in the Struggling Facility Get a Fresh Look

Jason Clayworth

Des Moines Register

July 11, 2006

Plans drawn up by volunteers two years ago to revamp exhibits and make other improvements at the Des Moines Botanical Center languished as leaders sat on the ideas, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds and watched attendance dwindle. . . . City leaders and center volunteers acknowledge that the improvement plans were shelved largely because of uncertainty over businessman Ted Townsend's idea for a $150 million indoor rain forest.
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Plans drawn up by volunteers two years ago to revamp exhibits and make other improvements at the Des Moines Botanical Center languished as leaders sat on the ideas, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds and watched attendance dwindle.

Now, talk among residents, Botanical Center supporters and city leaders is growing about what should be done with the nearly 27-year-old riverside facility.

City leaders threatened to shut the doors three years ago, but a push is now under way to revive the facility.
 
 
"It now waits for someone with real horticulture experience and a desire to make it more interactive and educational," said Elvin McDonald, a board member of Friends of the Botanical Center, a volunteer group.

City leaders and center volunteers acknowledge that the improvement plans were shelved largely because of uncertainty over businessman Ted Townsend's idea for a $150 million indoor rain forest. But national experts say now is the time to dust off the 2004 proposals, because new or improved exhibits every few years are the key to maintaining healthy attendance at any public attraction, especially botanical gardens and similar venues.

"People support gardens for a lot of different reasons. For a lot of people, it's to get ideas," said Scott Vergara, executive director of the popular Berry Botanic Garden in Portland,

THE PROBLEMS

Blank Park Zoo is a 22-acre facility in Des Moines. It recently faced low attendance and a large budget deficit.

THE SOLUTIONS

The Blank Park Zoo Foundation took over management of the facility in 2003 and has marketed the zoo as a statewide attraction.
The marketing and new attractions have helped boost annual attendance from 250,000 to 315,000 over the past three years.
The foundation has closed a nearly $500,000 budget deficit, increased an endowment fund that helps to pay for operating costs, and launched a number of attractions and programs such as "Zoo Brew," a summer event for adults.

Ore. Frequent updates, he said, are "what you have to do" to survive growing competition for the public's entertainment money.

The Des Moines Botanical Center has seen no major changes to gardens or exhibits in at least a decade. Attendance has plummeted by almost 83 percent since 1989, from 222,590 to 37,869. Last year, daily paid admission was about 100. The number was nearly five times higher 10 years ago.

"I haven't been there in over five years," said John Elton of Des Moines. "It's a great place, and I love it. But after a few times I have had the thought of, 'Why go back?' "

City Council members in 2003 threatened to close the Botanical Center, which was losing $850,000 a year. Des Moines Water Works, owned by the city but operated separately, took control the following year. Water officials believed they could bring the center back to life.

In two years, water customers have shelled out roughly $1 million to cover deficits.

The volunteer group spent $16,500 in 2004 on an improvement plan, obtained by The Des Moines Register, that outlines living memorials, a redesigned greenhouse and a new entrance, among other things. Proposals called for updated and expanded plant collections and financial partnerships with other groups, businesses and organizations. But the plan, which didn't advance past the concept stage, did not specify how much the improvements would cost.

Townsend's rain forest, modeled on a successful project in England, was slated for Coralville, but negotiations with elected officials there stalled. Interest has turned more than once to Des Moines, and each time, Botanical Center officials got nervous. When organizers recently said the most likely locations for the four-acre rain forest were Pella and Riverside, Botanical Center officials breathed a sigh of relief.

"Right now, we're just trying to decide what truly should be the next step," said Randy Beavers, assistant general manager of the waterworks.

There is no timetable for the next step, but Botanical Center supporters said they would like to have some answers within the next few months. Amy Mills, president of the volunteer group, said one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the question of who will manage the center.

Some water board members this year debated the idea of returning management responsibilities to the city. But the trend across the nation is for private groups to take over management of botanical gardens, said Dan Stark, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association, an organization in Delaware that represents more than 500 groups. Nonprofit groups can raise money from private donors more easily when facilities aren't managed by government, he said.

Stark noted that botanical attractions have increasingly opened their doors to new exhibitions or social events such as "cocktails in the garden" or "music in the garden" to help attendance.

Visitor centers such as one opened at the Dallas Arboretum in Texas two years ago and the children's garden opened this year at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., are examples of other ways to boost interest, Stark said. He noted that major improvements are more difficult for small groups.

"It's not like changing out an art exhibit," Stark said. "Plants take decades to grow in some cases."

Gina Tedesco, a spokeswoman for the Morton Arboretum, said the 1,700-acre attraction expects admissions this year to double from only two years ago. In the late '90s, the group launched a $45 million fundraising campaign, and in the past two years it opened a visitors center and new gardens focused on interactive and educational exhibits, such as a giant slide made of synthetic tree roots. Roughly 750,000 visitors are expected this year, Tedesco said.

Susan Koch Bridgford, a board member of the Des Moines volunteer group, complained at a water board meeting in May that "negative articles" in the Register about attendance and money troubles have hurt the cause. But Dave Carlson, a water board member who has long voiced support for the center, said public disclosure of the problems is essential before advocates can garner community support.

Carlson said he didn't think the concept plan put together in 2004 was sufficient. Community meetings should be conducted to harvest new ideas, he said.

"I think whatever we do must be daring," Carlson said.

Peggy Lents, vice president of communications for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, said her group makes frequent changes and additions to exhibits, adds temporary attractions, and hosts community festivals and other activities.

Organizers this year added a children's garden where visitors can climb a tree, drive a steamboat and visit a mid-19th-century pioneer village. Last year, the facility opened the George Washington Carver Garden, which includes a pond and sculptures.

The Missouri center, which covers nearly 80 acres, has not experienced any notable admissions drops, organizers said. "We've had attendance with ripples, but it is more constant than not," Lents said.

While exhibits at the Des Moines center have not seen major updates in more than a decade, the building has been maintained. In the past two years, the city and waterworks have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the center's dome and update rooms used for gatherings.

Those investments helped boost room rentals by 41 percent last year, which translated into a revenue increase from rentals of about $50,000. The total, however - roughly $164,000 in 2005 - was about the same revenue rental collected each year by the city before 2004, when the waterworks took over management.