Every October, one of several yearly transformations at the Green Bay Botanical Garden begins.
While summer plants are quietly entering their winter slumber, staff and volunteers shift their focus to preparing one of the biggest displays around — the Garden of Lights. It’s the organization’s signature event, drawing about 60,000 visitors during its 20-day run, says Executive Director Susan Garot.
But to stay successful, Garot says the garden needs to attract visitors year-round. It’s all about keeping perennial favorites like the Garden of Lights fresh while still cultivating special new offerings that also will become an annual draw.
“We’ve discovered that if you build it, they don’t just come,” she says. “You have to program it. And you have to give people something that they want.”
That means creating a variety of appealing and inclusive events. At the end of September, for example, the botanical garden hosted its Fall Family Festival, which offered a complimentary day of family entertainment.
“One of the things we’re always trying to do is to be accessible to everyone in the community,” Garot says. “We know admission is a barrier to participation, so we try to have a number of events like this one where it’s free.”
Last summer, the organization launched a successful concert series featuring a variety of music including bluegrass and folk, symphony, country, the Florentine Opera Company and a Steely Dan tribute band. The series drew about 5,000 visitors, and Garot says it will return next year and may expand to include performances such as Shakespeare or musicals.
“We obviously watch trends,” she says. “We watch what other gardens in bigger cities are doing, and we try to bring that experience to our Northeast Wisconsin community.”
A nonprofit organization, the botanical garden receives about 70 percent of its funding from earned revenue, including admissions, gift shop sales, facility rentals and weddings. The remaining 30 percent comes from donations, with about 90 percent of that from individuals and 10 percent from corporations and foundations, Garot says.
The garden also tried something new this summer when it hosted an international touring exhibit. The Nature Connects exhibit featured nature-inspired sculptures by artist Sean Kenney, who crafts stunning pieces out of Lego bricks. The exhibit drew record crowds — a 170 percent increase over the normal summer visitation — and attracted visitors from around the country, Garot says.
The organization took a big risk on the exhibit, which cost about $100,000 to bring in, and it paid off.
“We just calculated our economic impact, and it was over $2.6 million just from the summer event,” Garot says. “Our annual economic impact prior to bringing in the show was $2.5 million, so with that show we’re expecting we’re going to be at over $5 million in economic impact this year.”
The garden’s operating budget was $2.5 million last year, and it employs about 30 full- and part-time workers year-round, with an additional 20 or so seasonal employees and interns in the summer.
For the upcoming Garden of Lights display, Facilities and Maintenance Coordinator Dave Barkow focuses his attention on the project full time for about two months, setting up what he estimates is “a quarter-million” lights.
The botanical garden sees more than a quarter-million bulb flowers including tulips and daffodils burst open around Mother’s Day.
Mark Konlock, the garden’s director of horticulture, and his team of staff and interns manage 63,000 plants, trees and shrubs on 47 acres of property to keep it all blooming.
“One thing people have always said is how different (the garden) is when they visit throughout the year,” Konlock says. “If you’ve been here, you really need to come back throughout the year to experience everything that happens.”
Next summer, the garden plans to open a summer butterfly house to attract visitors and educate them about plants that draw butterflies, while also giving them an up-close-and-personal experience with the winged insects, Konlock says.
The garden aims to entertain and educate visitors along with offering a special place to commune with nature away from everyday distractions.
“We’re so busy with everything where it’s kind of nice to have a place to kind of get away,” Konlock says.
Garden of Lights
The Garden of Lights event runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 23 to Dec. 23 and Dec. 26-30 from 5 to 9 p.m. Children 12 and younger of the same household can enter free with a paid adult on Family Night on Nov. 25. The grounds can be seen by foot or horse-drawn wagon.