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Pulling back from the brink


Last year, the city of Des Moines was considering closing the Des Moines Botanical Center. Though use of the facility’s meeting rooms was strong, attendance was declining. The Botanical Center had a strong volunteer contingent, but hadn’t been able to parlay the group’s loyalty into enough paying customers to cover its operating costs. Then the Des Moines Water Works stepped in. On Jan. 1, the utility agency took over management of the Botanical Center, though the city retains ownership of the land and the building.

The Water Works hopes to take the Botanical Center from “heavily subsidized” to “more self-sustaining,” according to Water Works Assistant General Manager Randy Beavers. The Water Works has signed a five-year contract to operate the fcacility, but in three years they plan to examine the tourist attraction’s viability and decide whether to keep it open or close it.

“Right now, we’re looking at the long run,” Beavers said. “This place needs to be self-sustaining, and we will rely somewhat on hotel-motel taxes, but also attendance, the gift shop, catering and the café. It’s going to take everybody wanting to see this place grow and thrive.”

Changes are already under way. Water Works employees have taken over maintaining the building and plants. The gardeners, who have experience caring for Water Works Park, have been contacting Iowa State University horticulture experts for advice on tending to plants in an indoor setting.

The café at the Botanical Center has been taken over by Rich and Jana Glenn, owners of the Great Midwestern Café in Clive, and its name has been changed to the Riverwalk Café. It is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The menu features seafood, salad, pasta and sandwiches, as well as wine and beer.

“We serve fresh, quality, upscale food –– no burgers and fries,” said Rich Murillo, general manager of the Riverwalk Café.

He said the green atmosphere of the Botanical Center matches well aesthetically with fresh, delicate food, “no deep-fat frying, no heavy cream sauce.” The cafe is available for private rental after 6 p.m. each day, and caters events held in the Botanical Center’s meeting rooms.

The gift shop is also undergoing a shift: Recently the shelves were nearly empty, and the prices on the small clusters of items that remained had been marked down. A sign on the door proclaimed that the shop was making room for “fresh merchandise,” and suggested that in the future the shop would offer “many items exclusively handcrafted by Iowa artisans.”

A volunteer running the cash register, Donna Weisskopf, said she looks forward to seeing the changes to the shop and the Botanical Center as a whole. Eighteen months ago, she started out volunteering in the greenhouses because of an interest in growing plants, but when the Botanical Center needed someone to work in the shop, she agreed to do so.

“I am very happy that Water Works has [agreed to run] the Botanical Center,” she said. “It’s a valuable asset, and I don’t want to see it lost to the city. I want it to succeed, and I’m willing to volunteer to help that happen.”

Friends of the Botanical Center, a non-profit organization that volunteers and raises funds to support the facility, has been instrumental in its transformation. The group has contracted with Douglas Hoerr Landscape Architecture of Chicago to help create a new conceptual plan for the Botanical Center. In April, a workshop was held to let the different parties involved, such as Friends of the Botanical Center, the Water Works, the city of Des Moines and the general public, share their ideas and concerns. The Hoerr firm is using the data gathered at that event to create a conceptual plan that will be released in July. At that time, the Friends organization and the Water Works will look at it to decide which elements to implement, and on what timetable.

“There are some exciting possibilities, and we haven’t tapped into everything,” said Grace Rappe, director of operations and architect at the Hoerr firm.

Rappe said goals made at the workshop include increasing viability and popularity, and creating partnerships in the community.

“One thing discussed was making the collections special,” she said. “Like the bonsai collection. It’s already pretty special. Some stuff in the conservatory collection, however, is fairly common. We want to find things unique to this place.”

The plan is expected to suggest turning the Botanical Center’s three greenhouses into exhibit halls, perhaps with corporate sponsors, and the exhibits would change periodically.

“Some of the [plant] beds in here change seasonally, but the bulk of the plant structure doesn’t change,” Beavers said. “The exhibit halls would give people more fresh, new things to see.”

According to Beavers, the Botanical Center’s land reaches down to the Des Moines River, so the plan may include doing more with that space. Also, the proposed Principal Riverwalk would tie the Botanical Center’s trails into a network of trails that run to Gray’s Lake and Water Works Park.

“Some people wonder, ‘Why Water Works and the Botanical Center,’” Beavers said. “This made a natural tie.”

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