The future of the Gardens at SIUE is in question after 12 years of photography, weddings and lessons beside the waters.
The Gardens began as Myer Arborteum in 1990, named in honor of the late Donald Myer, an SIUE biology professor whose passion was open spaces and plants. Essentially a collection of trees around the small Turtle Pond at that point, the arboretum grew on a winding, 35-acre space on the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus between the main campus buildings and Cougar Village, an apartment complex for older students.
In 2004, SIUE signed a lease with the SIUE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that handles fundraising for university programs. The arboretum was transformed into the Gardens at SIUE, which has since become a popular spot for recreation, photography and even weddings, often performed under the lakeside gazebo known as The Lantern.
The Gardens are designated as a “signature garden” by the Missouri Botanical Garden and are considered a "living laboratory" for the university. It includes the original arboretum, a butterfly garden, prairie restoration area, kinetic sculptures and other artwork, a replica Native American circle and other features.
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The SIUE Foundation raised money for the master plan and initial development, but fundraising became more difficult over the years, according to Rich Walker, interim vice chancellor for administration.
“As a result, the university agreed to fund a couple of positions and take care of the gross mowing and utilities,” Walker said. “But that was before the recent state budget cuts. The university can no longer fund the positions and is providing the gross mowing using temporary extra help.”
The SIUE Foundation voted last month to cancel the lease and return the property to the full responsibility of SIUE. “It is a casualty of the Illinois state budget crisis, and the resources necessary to maintain the Gardens are no longer available,” SIUE Foundation CEO Rachel Stack said.
It is a casualty of the Illinois state budget crisis, and the resources necessary to maintain the Gardens are no longer available.
SIUE Foundation CEO Rachel Stack
But SIUE can’t take it on alone, Walker said.
“As much as we love the Gardens and think the world of the volunteers and donors that help establish it, we can’t justify using our shrinking state appropriation or student tuition dollars to staff it or maintain it at the level the advisory board would like,” he said.
In addition, if the Gardens returns fully to SIUE, different laws would apply in regards to volunteers and donated labor, Walker said.
And volunteers are a big part of the Gardens’ success. The actual gardening work is performed by a group of 22 master gardeners and naturalists certified by the University of Illinois Extension Service who have made the Gardens their personal project — among them Marian Smithson, a retired SIUE administrator and master gardener. The volunteers maintain formal planting areas and the prairie restoration area, which Smithson estimates at about 2,000 hours of work per season.
Smithson said the Foundation’s decision has not kept the Gardens from going forward with daily operations — for now.
“It might not have been as scary if it weren’t in the middle of a state budget crisis,” she said.
So Smithson, SIUE Interim Chancellor Stephen Hansen, and former Foundation board member Bob McClellan went before the Edwardsville City Council to petition them for help. They proposed a five-year lease that could be broken after two years by either party and renewable every five years, with financial and in-kind support.
“It has very good possibilities because the university’s back is against the wall,” Smithson said. “That’s the reality of priorities at the university. They can’t do the things that are needed.”
City surveying residents to gauge support
Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton said they are working on the details of the potential agreement and running a survey of Edwardsville residents to gauge public support. Edwardsville has several “special parks” in its parks and recreation department, including the historic Benjamin Stephenson House, the Wildey Theater and the Watershed Nature Center. Each is owned by the city with some financial and in-kind support, but primarily operated and paid for through nonprofit foundations and usage fees.
Walker said SIUE currently pays about $100,000 a year for salaries, utilities and maintenance for the Gardens. “The city wouldn’t necessarily have the same expenses and it would likely be considerably less,” he said.
The estimated cost to the city would be $50,000 a year, with fundraising making up additional revenue as needed.
Patton said the survey has been up for less than a week, but they’ve had more than 400 replies. The surveys have been “very passionate” about saving the gardens, he said. About 80 percent of responders provided personal comments about their experiences in the Gardens, he said.
“They love it for photography, for strolling, for being out in nature,” he said. “They think it’s a vital thing to have in our community.”
This is familiar territory for Edwardsville; just a few months ago, the city ran a similar survey about taking over SIUE’s recreational pool. The response was positive, and the city has since leased the pool from the university and is running it as a public recreational facility for city residents and students alike. In that effort, Edwardsville partnered with Glen Carbon for expenses.
Patton said it’s too early to have solid numbers on the pool’s use, but his observations are that it’s going well. “I’ve been out there twice, and both times I couldn’t find an open lounge chair!” he said. “I’d say it’s very well-attended and well-occupied. Everyone says it’s very clean and nice. We are really fortunate; Mother Nature has really helped us out with this nasty heat.”
Personally, Patton said he’s in favor of establishing the Gardens as the next special park for Edwardsville. He said he sees it as another opportunity for the university and the city to work together.
It might not have been as scary if it weren’t in the middle of a state budget crisis.
Marian Smithson, master gardener and volunteer coordinator
“It’s a campus and community asset we would like to see continue,” he said. “I always want to look at the financial bottom line … but it continues to tie the community and the campus together with better relations and better opportunities.”
Patton said he hopes to continue building more partnerships, perhaps bringing in the Nature Preserve Foundation that pays for the Watershed Nature Center. Likewise, Watershed is land leased from the city with about 10 percent of its money coming from the city’s budget, and the remainder raised by the foundation.
“We have been approached in an effort from the Gardens’ founders to save the Gardens from the ravages of the state of Illinois budget crunch,” said Eve Drueke, program director and acting executive director of the Watershed Nature Center.
She said they have agreed to hear a proposal, but are waiting on the details before they will fully consider it. At the moment, the Nature Preserve Foundation is only responsible for the Watershed Nature Center, she said. She could not speculate whether that might change, or whether they would be in partnership with a different entity to assist with the Gardens.
“It’s very early,” she said. “We’ve just agreed to have a seat at the table.”
Patton said there is already nearly $2 million invested in the Gardens, and that’s worth preserving. “We can certainly benefit from additional park space,” he said.
Smithson said she believes the Gardens is a vital, well-developed park property that offers educational programs as well as lovely strolling areas for residents. “The Gardens has had national recognition in the last year and a half,” she said. “When you’re shopping for places to live in, it’s a special benefit.”
Patton said the proposal has been taken up by the city council committees. No vote has been scheduled yet.