hope it works!
Spiffed-up Botanical Center envisioned
New gardens, exhibits and a classroom are included in a $10.5 million plan.
By JASON CLAYWORTH
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
January 29, 2007
Officials today will announce a $10.5 million expansion plan they hope will finally pull the Des Moines Botanical Center out of a financial spiral caused by weak attendance.
Des Moines Water Works, which manages the 27-year-old center, will join with other groups and businesses, including Iowa State University Extension, on a $1 million classroom building, outdoor demonstration gardens, and educational and environmental exhibits.
The plan, which requires City Council approval, will be discussed today at a special public meeting at the downtown Armory Building.
"We think we've got a pretty good feel of how to get this thing where we need to go," said L.D. McMullen, the water department's general manager.
Water Works would raise the money, largely through private donations, he said. Property taxpayers will probably not be asked to contribute, but it's possible that revenue from a proposed sales tax increase for Polk, Dallas and Warren counties could be used, McMullen said. Voters will consider the tax increase in July.
The center, at 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, was once a popular spot, with attendance of more than 200,000 per year. Admissions have tailed off dramatically in recent years, in part because of what some have deemed stagnant displays.
The Water Works, which is owned by the city but operates independently, took over the Botanical Center in 2004 after city leaders threatened to close it over an $851,645 deficit that taxpayers covered the previous year. Water officials were confident they could shrink the deficit and keep the attraction open.
Water customers shelled out roughly $600,000 to soak up red ink the first year, followed by another $450,000 in 2005. The 2006 loss is expected to be about $150,000.
Water Works has spent thousands of dollars on Botanical Center improvements, such as repairs to the dome and updates to rooms used for meetings or social gatherings.
Room rentals increased 41 percent in 2005, which brought in more revenue. The rise in rentals is credited as the major reason for the reduction in losses last year.
Doug Gulling, president of Friends of the Botanical Center, a volunteer group, said residents' concern and media reports on the center's plight have helped create new enthusiasm for the attraction.
"There haven't been many changes to the Botanical Center in its lifetime," Gulling said. "I think it's time to update it and make it more relative to Iowa."
The proposal to be made public today will in many ways follow a 2004 plan drawn up by volunteers who called for a new entrance and expanded cafe and gift shop.
The biggest structural change would be a 7,500-square-foot building to be used largely by Iowa State University Extension for classrooms. Extension would pay roughly $100,000 a year in a long-term lease; ultimately, that money would pay for the construction.
If elected officials and organizers reach an accord, construction could begin this year on the new building, which would be on the south side of the center. Extension leases space at 5201 N.E. 14th St. The organization would like to move to the Botanical Center by August 2008.
"The Botanical Center is a gem. It just needs a little bit of a face-lift, and I hope my organization plays a part in that face-lift," said Jeanine Baldwin, Polk County's Extension education director.
City Councilwoman Christine Hensley said closing the Botanical Center would be a bad move for the city, especially in light of the downtown activity being generated by construction of the Principal Riverwalk.
The Brenton Ice Skating Plaza, which is part of the riverwalk, opened late last year about four blocks from the Botanical Center. If updated, the center would work well with the riverwalk, Hensley said.
McMullen said the improvements would take place as money becomes available. The project would probably take about five years, he said, with additional improvements made once the $10.5 million plan is complete.