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Thanks to 'Gardens Aglow,' Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens' numbers continue to grow

BY Laurie Schreiber

2/5/2019
Courtesy / Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Courtesy / Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens' wintertime Gardens Aglow event saw a 44% increase in visitation in 2018, compared with 2017.

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay continues to break visitation records, which results in economic impact to the region, but has also prompted management reviews.
The gardens had a record number of visitors both for its regular season and for its wintertime Gardens Aglow event, said Director of Marketing Kris Folsom.
Its growth in visitation was fueled by its holiday-season attraction.
There were 113,000 visitors in the 2018 regular season, which runs from early April to Late October. There were 112,000 in 2017. But Gardens Aglow, which runs from mid-November to the end of December, hosted 112,000 visitors in 2018, a 44% increase from 78,000 visitors the year before.
Several factors spurred the increases, said Folsom, including a new visitor center, which opened last spring. The center has a separate group entrance and dedicated bus parking, making easier access and parking for groups as well as individuals.
“It really helps provide the infrastructure that our guests need when they come in,” she said. “And the new visitor center is much larger, so we’re able to have more people come through the gate at a time.”
Another factor that helped boost regular-season numbers was the addition of a native butterfly and moth house. “It piqued the interest of a lot of different people,” Folsom said. “It’s temporary, but we’ll keep it up for 2019 because it was so well received.”
Gardens Aglow growth was driven in part by good weather. “We had a pretty mild November and December, compared with last year,” she said. “So we didn’t need to cancel any of our events for weather-related reasons. That was a huge plus.”
Another assist was a $50,000 grant the gardens received from the Maine Office of Tourism that allowed more advertising outside of Maine.
The purpose of the grant was to bring in tourists from out of state during the “shoulder season” that comes after the foliage season ends, but before winter recreation starts, who would most likely spend more time in the area and explore other attractions as well.
Some 13% of Gardens Aglow visitors were from out of state, which meant an additional 6,000 to 7,000 more visitors from out of state than in 2017.
“They’re staying overnight, dining out, doing some shopping. That was a huge win,” said Folsom.

The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens received previous Maine Office of Tourism grants, but this was its largest one from the tourism office to date, she said.
The need for the new entry strategy became apparent through the gardens’ master planning process, she said. When the gardens opened in 2007, it was built to accommodate 40,000 people a year, which wasn’t expected right away. But the gardens began attracting that number almost from the start, she said.
“So we were looking at how we needed to move forward from the get-go,” she said.
The gardens are operating under a 2015 to 2035 master plan. The new entry was part of phase-one expansion. Additional goals include expanding to year-round operations, which will include building a conservatory.
“We’re in the planning process for that,” she said. Also planned is a propagation facility. Currently, plants are sourced from outside vendors.
With regard to economic impact to surrounding communities, the gardens is in the process of identifying an outside contractor to conduct an analysis, Folsom said.
“We did a study years ago, but that information is outdated,” she said.
Anecdotally, however, there appear to be positive effects. As part of Gardens Aglow, the venue works with Boothbay Lights, a joint initiative of the towns of Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor that extends winter visitation along the peninsula. The gardens has received positive feedback from restaurants, hotels and merchants, Folsom said.
With regard to future management, the organization will review this past winter’s Gardens Aglow with an eye toward identifying how to manage admissions for 2019 so everyone has an enjoyable experience, she said.
“We want to make sure it’s a pleasant and happy experience for everyone,” she said. “Part of the process of growth is figuring out how to manage the growth and work with all the constituents to have a great experience.”
The botanical gardens’ $30 million expansion was temporarily halted by lawsuits filed against Boothbay in 2017. The suits were resolved in an April federal ruling that allowed the expansion to move forward.
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has an estimated economic impact of $26.3 million a year, supporting the equivalent of 340 full-time jobs, Maine Association of Nonprofits reported in 2015.