Quad City Botanical Center Poised to Grow Again In a Busy 2021
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The Covid-19 pandemic not only drove many people crazy, but it’s driven them more than ever outdoors – for comfort, relaxation, exercise and simple enjoyment of the natural world.
And with a new executive director, reopening this month to seven days a week, an expanded Children’s Garden to open in May, and many rescheduled private events coming, the QCBC is poised to bloom like its
newly planted trees, plants and flowers.
“I think it’s a therapeutic exercise, that a lot of people were looking for some new things last year and I think that we’ve affected people positively,” Ryan Wille, the center’s new executive director, said this past week.
“I know for a fact that the numbers for our annual plant sale, last spring and then when we tried a fall plant sale last year as well — more of a pop-up style – and the sales numbers on those were record-breaking,” he said. “That goes hand-in-hand with the amount of people that are becoming interested in outdoor gardening and things like that as a hobby or a form of therapy.”
Even prior to Covid, the now 23-year-old QCBC promoted itself as a quiet, contemplative refuge from the stresses of life.
“Every adult can find a reason to visit the Botanical Center. Bask in the warmth of our tropical Sun Garden during all four seasons and find solitude as an escape from daily life,” says its website, www.qcgardens.com.
“Take a walk with friends and family through the gardens and then wander through our gift shop filled with an assortment of garden-related
gifts. The Center offers many quiet spots to meditate or simply rest your mind and body.”
Wille, a 33-year-old native of Palatine, Ill. (a northwest Chicago suburb), started as new executive director April 7, succeeding Ami Porter – who joined QCBC as rental facility manager in 1998, just a month after the place opened. She will stay on as a consultant until the May 14 ribbon-cutting of the Children’s Garden expansion.
“I’m very excited, grateful, humbled — all of the above — to be given this opportunity,” Wille said recently. “I’m grateful to have the reins passed down to me from somebody like Ami, who has done just a fantastic job of — no pun intended — growing the gardens to where they are today. I truly believe they’re just a community asset that everybody needs to experience.”
“I definitely feel fortunate to have her here in the building with me to communicate anything I need to know about open projects,” he said. “She’s introduced me to appropriate people and she’s doing a fantastic job of making sure I have everything I need to continue the momentum, at a time of the year which is the busiest.”
A 2009 graduate of Bradley University in Peoria, Wille was first a part-time educator at the center (starting March 2016), and was special events and marketing manager until October 2018, after which he worked as development manager of the Humane Society of Scott County.
“Ryan, he is a great leader. He is a wonderful person,” Porter said Tuesday. “He is very passionate about the gardens. He cares very much about the success of the gardens and he’s very community-oriented. And so the Quad-Cities is home and when you have a love for the community with a love for an organization that’s mission-based, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
Porter is moving in mid-May to northern Wisconsin (five hours from the Q-C), where she and her husband (Marshall Porter, who retired as general manager of WHBF-TV last year) bought a house.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with the Botanical Center board for a long time, and had the opportunity to see Ami not only as the rental manager, but operations manager, and become executive director,” QCBC board member Bill Nelson said Tuesday. “It’s been phenomenal to watch her grow, and be the voice for the Botanical Center, Her care and concern for the facility and its success has been an amazing thing.”
Porter became chief operating officer in 2007, when the QCBC “was really in tough financial straits, and she was able to work through all that and get the center on a good sound financial footing, in addition to being able to expand,” Nelson, a former Rock Island Parks and recreation director, said.
The children’s garden was a major feat for her, at a time when I think there was a lot of concern about expanding anything,” he said. “The children’s garden virtually doubled the attendance for that facility. It truly was a critical part of the success of the center.”
After Porter announced in January her intention to step down, the QCBC board posted the position with several botanical and recreational organizations, and they received 36 applications from coast to coast, Nelson said.
“We were extremely pleased with the quality of the people who applied,” he said. “We narrowed those down to seven that we did preliminary interviews with by Zoom, and then we narrowed that down to three we interviewed in person. “
“As we went through that interview process, it became apparent Ryan, one, that this seemed to be a dream for him to be at the Botanical Center,” Nelson said. “He had spent some time with us in the past. His qualifications and demeanor and excitement just really carried it for us.”
Wille’s fundraising experience with the Humane Society is key for QCBC.
“Particularly in the nonprofit area, obviously, you have dependency on fundraising and grant opportunities,” Nelson said. “The other thing lost on some, is that important ability to recognize that while you’re educating people about plants and the outdoors, it’s also critical you understand that it is an entertainment business.
“The lion’s share of your revenue is going to come from daily fees and rentals,” he said, noting that the Covid pandemic seriously cut into that income. “Being able to think outside the box is really critical right now,” Nelson said.
The Botanical Center has been fortunate during the pandemic because it’s been a place people could enjoy the outdoors safely, he said.
On April 1, the center reopened to regular hours – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 on Sundays.
From landscaping to love for gardens
After college, Wille worked for a landscape design and lawn care company in Arlington Heights. During summers from Bradley, he did landscape maintenance for his local school district, and truly developed a love for nature
“I’d frequent the Chicago Botanic Garden, and when I saw an education opportunity pop up here, I thought it would be a great way to not only be involved around plants but also to help others potentially share my passion,” Wille said of QCBC. “You know, learn a little bit about plants along the way and one thing led to another.”
He really enjoyed working with younger students when he hosted field trips. “They asked some really just deep questions, that they are just very inquisitive young kids,” Wille said. “The simpler mind of a child, they’re so literal and I think they had some pretty fantastic questions.”
“What impressed me the most initially was the level of professionalism among the staff and just the amount of expertise that resides inside this facility,” he said of the center. “I think it’s just impressive and something that every community member certainly deserves to experience and is lucky to have here in the Quad-Cities.”
When Wille moved to work for QCBC special events, he planned and executed all the event fundraisers – working with local businesses to develop sponsorships as well as promote the general attendance and programs of the gardens.
“They’ve both grown exponentially in both attendance and community involvement, from the point the perspective of ‘Art in the Garden,’ the amount of vendors has grown and certainly ‘Winter Nights, Winter Lights,’” he said of two very popular events that began under his first QCBC tenure.
Of the winter lights, “That has just gone gangbusters and hopefully it’s becoming a tradition here for more and more families in the area and
for people passing through,” Wille said.
He went to work for the Humane Society partly to earn more money, to help his wife Stacy (a Morrison, Ill., native, they married in 2013), who now is ICU supervisor at Genesis East Campus in Davenport.
“My wife was going through some continuing education, and it worked out better for us at the time,” Wille said. “And when I saw the opportunity to join the gardens again, I jumped on that pretty quickly.
He and his wife live in Bettendorf and have a four-year-old son, Easton, and a daughter Grace, who was born this past January. The first phase of the Children’s Garden opened in 2014 and its expansion has been “extremely impressive and I think just a testament to the amount of work that was done during her time here,” Wille said of Porter.
The first phase is described online this way: “This whimsical garden is a playful interpretation of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by greenery, flowering perennials and native prairie plants, the intrigue of water play allows children to be carried away by their imaginations in
a safe and accessible environment. Visitors become acquainted with a world of fours — the four seasons, the four directions, four way tests, factors of four, games of four and flowers of four! This area, with the sundial underfoot, is where the adventure begins.”
The first two phases of the Children’s Garden – with the expansion to create the length of the river up to headwaters – cost $2.5 million.
The funding sources for the headwaters that was just finished – with much of the construction done last year as the area was closed to the public, through this April – included a Illinois Museums Grant, Clyde and Donna Schoeck, Roy and Dorose Harrington, Scott County Regional Authority, Regional Development Authority, Bob and Dorothy Towler, Marvin Webb, Hunt and Diane Harris Family Foundation, and Bank Orion.
“The number-one most important thing is that it accurately portrays the resource that we have, within throwing distance of here,” Wille said of the mighty Mississippi.
“And number two, the Children’s Garden is a great tool to attract young families and their children and adults to a place that looks beautiful,” he said. “While they’re here taking in the sights and everything that’s aesthetically pleasing, they’re learning something as well. So the Children’s Garden is a great tool to open that relationship with these community members.”
Porter fell in love at first sight
A 52-year-old Moline native, Porter’s parents owned a farm in Taylor Ridge, and recently recalled driving by the Botanical Center in 1998, when it was nearly complete.
Its stunning centerpiece is the 70-foot-tall atrium of the Sun Garden — a 6,444-square-foot climate-controlled space that includes a 14-foot waterfall, stream, and fish pond that circulate water through the atrium, providing a home for the popular Japanese Koi, and supplying vital humidity for plants. The Sun Garden is home to fruit-bearing plants including coconut, banana, vanilla, coffee and the cocoa tree (chocolate).
“I said I’m going to work there,” Porter said of the first time she saw the building. “I would never have the qualifications to work at a botanical center. I’d definitely love to garden but that wasn’t my educational background.”
She was an English major at Illinois State University, and before working at QCBC, Porter worked at John Deere guest services, and often traveled for the company around the country.
The center opened in June 1998; she interviewed July 4, 1998 and said she was hired on the spot.
“The gardens have changed and grown and developed so much over the years, but I loved the overall excitement of being able to offer such amazing amenities to such an amazing community,” Porter said. “:It was a very exciting prospect and so when I started at the gardens my hospitality background with Deere I feel like, that’s the reason I was able to step into the position.”
The QCBC has long been a popular place for weddings, receptions, private parties, and club meetings. Porter became chief operating officer in 2007, while former Deere executive Paul Knedler was interim executive director. She had worked with him at Deere. “Paul and Char are like family to me,” she said of Knedler and his wife. “And so that was a wonderful opportunity for me to work with Paul as the interim, and he was a credit to helping me advance in my career here at the gardens.”
Moline-based Deere always has been a strong supporter of QCBC. The Deere Foundation funded a great deal of the school tours that have come through, Porter said. Before Covid, the center served 10,000 students annually in hands-on programs and workshops, and typically took programs into school classrooms throughout the region.
“They were funding just many, many schools that otherwise would not have been able to afford either the transportation or the admission to come have that that field trip, nature, immersive experience,” Porter said of Deere. Deere also was a major donor to the original “Point of Pride” campaign, which “brought the gardens to fruition,” she said.
The word “education” doesn’t appear in the center mission — which “to bring people and plants together in fun and meaningful ways” — but education is “at the heart of that,” she said. “So whether we’re teaching youth or inspiring adults, it’s inherent and everything that we do.”
“We’ve done our very best to remove as many barriers as we can to education at the gardens,” Porter said. “And so we’ve always offered options to make sure that we can educate as effectively as possible, and so we have kept our costs low only enough to try to cover what expenses were incurred and then we did not have the budget to supply transportation. So that was one of the components of the John Deere grant — that we were able to help overcome from the simple standpoint of busing has become quite expensive and many schools just didn’t have it in their budget to bus.
“We also we also did a lot of outreach, where we physically went to the schools to teach and greatly reduce the cost of those educational services as well,” she said, noting the most common grades to visit QCBC have been pre-K through 3rd.
Funding from Cultural Trust and other support
The Quad Cities Cultural Trust formed in 2007 and couldn’t have come at a more crucial time, Porter said. It first provided annual, unrestricted grants to QCBC, River Music Experience, Quad City Symphony, Putnam Museum, and Figge Art Museum (later adding Quad City Arts).
“It was important when the Quad Cities Cultural Trust formed, the economy was hurting and it landed us in this situation where funding for
operating was just very, very difficult to come by,” Porter said. “The fact that the Cultural Trust realized the value that the Botanical Center and other organizations like ours brings to the community, through their generosity and hard work, we definitely not only were able to sustain that — we’re able to expand our educational services and just simply the experience of being here for a guest to visit the gardens.”
“The Quad Cities Cultural Trust is a steadfast source of funds for our gardens,” Porter said. “We are honored to be a funded partner as they help ensure that culture matters here, and it always will.”
“Thankfully, QCCT was built on the understanding that cultural offerings and strength of community are inseparable,” Porter said. “Our gardens and grounds are a living classroom where students of all ages learn that plants and people are inseparable, too. QCCT understands our value and provides the operating support necessary to thrive.”
Normally, the Botanical Center has an annual operating budget of $850,000, and as a private nonprofit, must raise money from a variety of sources, Porter said, including its memberships, general admission, and grants. Members get free admission among other benefits. Because Covid closed the facility from mid-March 2020 to June 6, and later limited admission to Saturdays only from January through March 2021, memberships declined, she noted. They currently have over 600 memberships on the books, representing about 2,100 total people.
In typical years, QCBC would earn a good chunk of revenue through private rentals, fundraisers, meetings and special events. No public meetings were held between mid-March and December 2020; the Rock Island Kiwanis and Rotary clubs usually have weekly lunch meetings in the QCBC banquet room, and they still haven’t resumed in-person meetings.
Last year, 27 weddings and receptions scheduled at the center were cancelled or rescheduled. An additional 140 events (meetings/award dinners/showers, etc.) were cancelled from mid-March through the end of the year, Porter said.
Total attendance plummeted at the center plummeted to 27,400 people in 2020, from 46,980 in 2019, she said.
Because of the success of the QCCT fundraising campaign to increase its endowment, the Cultural Trust did a second grant distribution last fall, “which was which so very important to our success and being able to continue to operate,” Porter said.
Last year, the center was able to have two weeklong summer camps for kids in July; an Aug. 1 “Art in the Garden” art sale, and had a very successful online plant sale. The John Deere Classic’s Birdies for Charity continued last year, which the center has also benefited from.
“We moved our plant sale online and we had the best plant sale we have had in quite some time as a community,” Porter said. “That’s probably because many people, they were sheltering at home, and made a lot of choices to improve their home landscapes and so it was wonderful for us.”
“We did curbside pickup where we literally just brought people’s plants right out and put them in trunks of their car, and then in June as restrictions started to lift, we were able to open the outdoor gardens,” she said. “By August, we were able to host ‘Art in the Garden, which was outdoors on the lawn. So we were able to do some outdoor events. But in the midst of all this, we were handling many cancellations in private events.”
“We were able to do October pumpkin activities because they were primarily outdoors. We were able to host our summer camps again. We just had the benefit of the beautiful outdoor landscape to use as our classrooms,” Porter said. “We were able to host our ‘Winter Nights, Winter Lights’ exhibit because it was completely outdoors. We had a ticketing system to handle capacity so that we didn’t have any too many people here at one time.
“We actually saw an increase from the previous year. So we felt like that was quite an endorsement for our winter,” she said.
Porter is proud of the 2017 launch of “Winter Lights,” as she envisioned turning the gardens into a colorful winter garden experience for the community to enjoy. The exhibit serves as the Botanical Center’s major fundraiser, and over 130,000 lights were on display for the 2020 season.
Offering new programs, activities
With limits on groups at QCBC, they’ve done some online and other Facebook Live programming and the former educator did some pre-recorded sessions, with downloadable activities. The center is seeking a new educator, to start ASAP, Wille said.
Porter got a Rock Island Community Foundation grant to do more live streaming and pre-recorded content. They’re hoping to do a new series called “Get Ready, Set, Go Garden,” that would feature head gardener Dave Searl, talking about all different kinds of gardening.
“We made the decision to only be open on Saturdays until the gardens were in a better position for visitors, and I’m not sure how else to say that — in the winter time, the gardens there’s that time in between the cold winter and spring, when they start to pop,” Porter said. Before April 1, the center was available for visitors by individual appointments.
“So anybody that wasn’t able to come in on Saturdays, but wanted to come in during the week could call and set up an appointment,” she said. “We did accommodate guests who wanted to come in by appointment and that was a great way for us to be able to control capacity. And then it was actually honestly just a short time, about six weeks, when we were only open on Saturdays and then reopened fully on Thursday the 1st.”
“We did a lot of infrastructure repair last year, and it was all funding that had been raised previous to Covid and restricted for the purposes that I’m speaking about,” Porter said of the Children’s Garden, replaced climate control for all indoor spaces, and new walls for the outdoor three-season events canopy. “So we definitely did a lot of infrastructure repair during the time when we could not operate at full capacity,” Porter said.
The Children’s Garden was closed after the pandemic started, to reopen in May.
“With this being such a new thing, without knowing things would last, we didn’t know – there was no regulation on how to sanitize a
sandbox, or if the water feature would be safe for people to be out and in,” center marketing manager Paige Underwood said. They still had two weeks of children’s camps last summer, in July.
With the expansion, the Children’s Garden represents the entire 2,318-mile length of the Mississippi River – from the new “headwaters” at Lake Itasca, Minn., down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“They’ve got a webcam there you can watch,” Searl said recently of the actual headwaters. At the Children’s Garden, there are stepping stones where you can walk across, and there are jets that will circulate the water, and there will be pots of water plants.
In late April, they will plant perennials and shrubs. Last fall, a variety of trees were planted. There will be a canoe put in at “Lake Itasca,” so kids can pretend they’re camping.
Growing up on a farm in rural Port Byron, Searl developed an early interest in nature and plants. Working at the center has given him the opportunity to share his interests and knowledge with others. He enjoys traveling and is a longstanding member of the Moline Horticultural Society. Searl worked for the gardens at Moline’s Butterworth Center and Deere-Wiman House before joining QCBC in 2000.
Future Children’s Garden expansion includes a new education center, with office space, meeting space and restrooms, as well as a mini-
Palisades and Maquoketa Caves, and transportation garden.
“We’re hoping to hear a lot of noise out here, with the kids playing,” Searl said of this summer.
Last year, they installed new side walls on the events canopy, he said. He has enjoyed seeing the whole center grow over the years.
“I like seeing what the community gets out of the gardens,” Searl said. “That’s what it’s all about, why we do it, for the community here.”
Last year, he was mostly on the grounds by himself. “I felt like the lonely Maytag guy,” he said. “I’m working in the gardens while everybody else was working from home. I had a really dedicated volunteer, Rich Craddock, who’s a Scott County Master Gardener. He was cutting all the grass on the outside of the fence, while I was working on the inside. The gardens didn’t wait.”
“Ryan’s a familiar face. He was a good addition to the staff when he worked here; we hated to see him go,” Searl said of his new boss. “It’s nice to see him coming back; he has a young family. I’m the old man here, so it’s nice to see newer families getting involved here.”
Now, the center operates at 50-percent capacity, with the following restrictions:
- Guests are required to wear a mask at the Botanical Center at all times, inside and outside
- Enter through the main entrance
- Limit of groups of 10 people per hour
- Members receive free admission, non-members may pay at guest services
- Maintain social distance from guests, staff and volunteers
- Use hand sanitizer provided throughout the gardens, especially before touching doors
“It’s a wonderful thing that the Children’s Garden has been done. It had been so long on the master plan and of course we were in 2013 to start construction and opened the entry plaza in the River Way in 2014,” Porter said. “This most recent expansion completes that piece of the river. So the river now is complete from the headwaters down to the Delta. “So that’s very satisfying to be able to finish up that project and we’re very eager to see which part of the garden expansion happens next,” she said, noting future expansion may cost over $6 million more.
The QCBC is seeking a new education coordinator, with resume and cover letter due by April 23. The position provides supervision and leadership for the educational programs and exhibits, is responsible for program development, planning educational programs, delivery and assessment of programs and projects.
Upcoming plant sale, eco camp, and more
The plant sale orders are due April 18th. You can browse beautiful annual and perennial plants, staff picks and easy-to-master container
combinations, for your garden. New this year, they are offering plant sale T-shirts.
Members-only pickup will be Friday, May 7 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., or Saturday during general pickup. The pickup for general public is Saturday, May 8, 9 a.m. to noon.
Guests will pick up their plants curbside, in a contact-free experience. Due to Covid-19, there will not be an open stock sale in May. Ordering online is your only chance to support QCBC during this important fundraiser.
The popular KinderNature series is back starting this June. It is a program designed to help children ages 3 to 5 get in touch with nature and conservation. The program is held on the 2nd Tuesday of every month
and advanced registration is required.
Cost is $8 per participating child and includes admission for one adult. Enjoy the gardens after the program as part of your admission fee. Learn about topics like pollinators, worms, birds, and more.
The center Sunday Fundays are also back starting in June. Looking for weekend fun with the family? Enjoy this drop-in program, great for all ages on the first Sunday of the month. No RSVP required. Free for members or with paid admission. Learn about topics like fireflies, prairies, butterflies, and more.
The Eco Kids Camp is scheduled to return July 18 to 22 (daily 9 a.m. to noon) for children ages 5-11.The camp aims to help kids become environmentally aware, through Sun Garden education, greenhouse plantings, insect life cycles, fun and green crafts, edible gardening and more.
The camp cost is $65 for members and $75 for non-members.
The QCBC also has been a welcoming home to regional artists to display and sell wares in the garden store. Its changing art galleries showcase the works of regional artists and changes every two months. Displayed artwork is for sale and can be purchased at the gift shop, and there are several permanent art installations outdoors in the gardens.
The 2020 Art in the Garden was held Aug. 1, and had a great turnout, with 17 vendors, said Paige Underwood, special events and marketing manager since 2019.
“It was good. Everyone was really pleased, because it was the only art fair that happened all summer,” she said. “It was kind of like, it felt like one of the first community events happening in the summer, and people had a wonderful time.”
Underwood – who previously worked for Daytrotter and the Putnam Museum – enjoys seeing how people experience plants differently.
“Whether it’s for relaxation, to learn, or check in on what’s new,” she said. “I was a plant lover, but more on the indoor gardening side of things. It’s been really awesome to see all the different types of people come in and enjoy the gardens.”
Thanking and missing the Q-C
From her first marriage, Porter has a son, Sam, who’s studying audio engineering at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and she has a stepdaughter, Kristen and her husband Graham, who live in New Hampshire, with two kids.
“I absolutely will miss everything about the Quad-Cities,” she said. “I’ve made so many dear friends here and my family is here and the Botanical Center. I mean it’s my heart and so all of these things will be things that I will miss, but I plan to keep in touch and to make many return visits and the Quad-Cities will always be home.”
Porter treasures the support the QCBC has received.
“It absolutely takes a community to make success of a cultural organization, for us to have people behind it. People have to love it,” she said.
“They will have to love the community and understand why it’s important to have these kind of amenities available and understanding of how not only does it make our community better, but it draws people into our community for so many reasons — to visit the garden in particular to relax to unwind and meet with people that they love, to have life celebrations,” Porter said. “The gardens would not be a possibility without all the people that come together to make that a reality and that includes all of the generous donors, funders, the people who care enough to invest and not only financially, but their time,” she said also crediting the board and volunteers as “amazing.”
“I don’t want to say it’s promised or guaranteed, because it never is,” Porter said of that support. “That trajectory is there for sustainability and success into the future and it’s because people care and because they give on so many levels. I’m just thankful and I feel blessed and thankful to have had this opportunity to lead the gardens.
“I will always feel that sense of pride and belonging, that came from the community welcoming the gardens into their midst,” she said. “Accepting it and loving it and helping it grow. And we wouldn’t be here without the founding members, working in concert with the city of Rock Island to make this dream garden a reality.”
Nelson of the center board said top priorities for Wille (the new director) are to lead an updated strategic plan, hire a new educator, and head a transition back to normal operations after the pandemic finally ends.