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A bustling Botanical Gardens plans major expansion, but it needs help to do it

The Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens is planning the first major expansion in its 118-year history to accommodate more visitors and generate additional revenue.

The project will need government support and financing to move forward, but officials said they already are encouraged by the response they have received.

On the drawing board is a $14 million, 36,000-square-foot mostly glass building designed by architect Toshiko Mori for the southwestern side of the conservatory. The continuous building would house a new entrance, cafe and expanded gift shop. An events facility, classrooms, exhibit space, butterfly exhibit and grow houses also are planned.

"We are in discussions with foundations, corporations and government leaders in explaining the project with respect to raising funds," said David Swarts, the Botanical Gardens' president and chief executive officer.

"The reactions we've received have all been very positive and very encouraging," he added.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, whose district includes the conservatory, is already on board.

"I think the initiative is extraordinary and fitting," Kennedy said. "It's time for the Botanical Gardens to take it to the next level for future generations."

Kennedy said he hopes to help acquire state funds for the expansion, noting the Botanical Gardens is a regional attraction and economic generator.

"I expect the state to play a significant role in this," Kennedy said.

The conservatory, at 2655 South Park Ave., near the border of Lackawanna, has seen significant growth in recent years. It is on pace to pass last year's paid attendance record of 82,750, and the 20,002 students and adults who took educational classes. Last year's Lumagination show attracted nearly 22,000.

The trends led leadership to start thinking about how to meet future needs and boost ways to add revenue.

"We have outgrown all of our spaces," said Erin Grajek, associate vice president of marketing and visitor experience. "We have to turn away weddings and educational programs because we just don't have the space in the current facility."

The Botanical Gardens estimates it lost $250,000 during the past summer months by not being able to offer weddings, showers and cocktail parties due to the heat. The new events space would allow for them to occur.

"Adding 36,000 square feet is really going to give us the opportunity to expand and offer everything we ever dreamed of to the community," Grajek said.

Another feature of the building will allow people to look down on the production grow houses and watch horticulturists working on flower and plant exhibits and repotting plants.

The Botanical Gardens is owned by Erie County, and millions have been invested in recent years to maintain the conservatory, including $3 million to rebuild the north greenhouse.

The county will need to be supportive for the project to move forward.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he has spoken with Swarts and members of the Board of Trustees, but hasn't decided yet on whether the expansion should occur. But he did give Swarts the go-ahead to begin seeking foundation support for the project.

The issue comes down to whether an expansion is perceived to be necessary, or if it should continue along as it is, Poloncarz said.

The expansion would address a looming problem for the county, he said. It would result in the demolition of eight deteriorating green and grow houses, and a garage, some of which were added in 1959. Their future repair and restoration costs to the county, Swarts estimates, would likely exceed the cost of the expansion project.

"If there is a way to expand revenue opportunities and replace existing grow houses that are in very poor condition, it is something we will consider," Poloncarz said.

The Botanical Gardens Society, which operates the conservancy, in recent years upgraded its strategic plan, developed a master plan and business plan, and conducted a fundraising feasibility study.

Mori, the New York City-based architect who designed the Greatbatch Visitor Pavilion at the Darwin Martin House, was hired to design the new building.

The conservatory's tri-domed glass and steel building designed by Lord & Burnham, who were among the premier conservatory designers of their time, will remain untouched by the expansion.

The nearest cities boasting Lord & Burnham-designed conservatories are in New York City, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Swarts said the expansion can also be a catalyst for further development south of the city.

Lackawanna recently received a grant to redo the South Park Avenue and Ridge Road intersection near the park. There is also an effort at the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed South Park, where the conservatory is located, to restore Olmsted's original arboretum and remove the golf course to adjacent land.

As unlikely as it seems now, the Botanical Gardens nearly met the demolition ball in 1929 and again in 1979. Following the latter crisis, the county stepped in and took it over.

In 2004, the county struck a public-private management agreement with the  Botanical Gardens Society.

The Botanical Gardens raises 94 percent of its annual $2 million budget, with 3 percent each coming from the county and city. Up to now, the only other change to the Botanical Gardens site, besides the 1959 additions, was an administration building in 2011.

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