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Aquatic Garden, Asian Rainforest help propel record attendance at Botanical Gardens

It's a good time to stop and smell the roses at Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

The cultural attraction in South Park had more paid admissions (82,750) and total attendance (more than 120,000)  in 2017 than any other year. Admissions jumped 31 percent from the year before.

"We're becoming more and more of a tourist attraction," said David Swarts, president and chief executive officer.

"The numbers we are talking about are also symbolic of the tremendous resurgence and renaissance we are experiencing through the City of Buffalo, and perhaps throughout Western New York," he said.


The new Flowform Water Feature in the recently renovated part of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The Newman family of Buffalo often visit the cultural attraction.

“We just enjoy the Botanical Garden,” said Heather Newman, who was accompanied by her husband.Jay, and and son Josh.

Up until Saturday, the family had not visited the Botanical Garden in the winter. But a special exhibit drew them.

“I’ve been wanting to see ... the Poinsettia show,” Heather Newman said. “They were beautiful, worth it.”

The unveilings of the Aquatic Garden and Asian Rainforest in two reopened areas at the gardens is credited with spurring the attendance increase.

"When we opened to the public, 8,200 people came through here that first weekend," Swarts said.

The Botanical Gardens also diversified its programs to attract more people.

Kristen Kelly, Leniyah West and Marie Snyder braved Saturday's cold temperatures for a trip to the Botanical Gardens.

“It’s all our first time,” Kelly said.

Kelly and 9-year-old Leniyah – a student at Charter School for Applied Technologies – participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County.  The pair was matched last November, Kelly said.

“We try to do some fun outings, some educational outings,” she said.

Snyder, Kelly’s grandmother, also tagged along.

“I’ve lived in Buffalo all my life and never been here,” Snyder said.

A growing educational program recorded a 46 percent increase in attendance. Offerings range from a partnership with the Dunkirk public schools, where a staff member conducts after-school biology classes, to an expansion of horticulture classes open to the public.

"One of our goals it to be the go-to place for all things for botanical horticulture, and we continue to achieve those goals," Swarts said.

Attendance at summer weddings and other private rentals increased 31 percent, even without wedding receptions due to a lack of air-conditioning. Fundraising programs registered a 13 percent increase.

Special programs also draw.

The Botanical Gardens' annual "Lumagination," a light show that begins this year on Jan. 26, remains a crowd favorite, with almost 15,000 people attending last year.

Victoria and Jason Rowley of Williamsville are among the visitors who attended last year’s “Lumagination,” an evening attraction.

But on Saturday, they just wanted to get out of the house and do something, Victoria said.

“We just like coming here one time in the winter, at least,” she said. “That’s kind of why we came today.”

“It’s a nice little escape,” Jason added. “We’ve done Lumagination, but this time we thought let’s just come during the day.”


People enjoy the main dome at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

New programs, including last summer's "Tasting Tuesday," offered full dinners and wine and had 70 to 80 seatings on average.

"Starry Night in the Garden," a concert with LeAnn Rimes, drew 3,500 people.

Swarts said the Botanical Gardens still benefits from the "Morty the Corpse Flower" craze in 2014.

That year, nearly 5,000 people came to see the Sumatran plant with the rotting smell in three days, and around 10,000 did so over a three-week period. Thanks to Morty, the 75,309 paid admissions in 2014 were the most of any year until 2017.

"People still come in and say, 'Where's Morty, where's Morty?' "Swarts said. "What that did was let people know there is a place out there that has crazy exotic plants. If you look at our numbers since then, you see this trend increase."

"Morty made us seem a little more progressive and a little more relevant in the botanical garden world," added Erin Grajek, the marketing director.

An emphasis on social media also helped, Swarts said.

"Because of our social media opportunities, I see a lot more young people," he said.

The staff of 15 full-time and eight part-time employees operate on a $1.8 million budget. Paid admissions account for 46 percent of that budget, with the state and county each providing about 3 percent. The county, which owns the buildings, will increase its share to $92,000.

The county also has set aside $1 million for a $1.6 million maintenance program on the historic structures. The work is expected to begin this year and most likely finish in early 2019. A New York State matching grant of $500,000 and a $125,000 grant secured by former state Assemblyman Michael Kearns also will pay for the work.

Work will be done on the exterior of the main Palm Dome, the front entrance, repointing the foundation, internal work on Houses 11 and 12, straightening the floor in House 10 and maintenance on the flat roof in House 7.

The challenge ahead: Sustaining the Botanical Gardens by coming up with new and interesting programs that people want to return for, Swarts said.

"I tell people all the time that even though we're doing well, the collection itself is not strong enough over a period of time to sustain the financial needs that we have to keep this operation going," Swarts said.

But with new exhibits and varied programming, the Botanical Gardens is on the right track. Swarts said.

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