Little white signs with perfect black text dot the path to reveal the common and scientific names of a variety of plants.
A dark green pond full of hungry gold koi under a Japanese maple provides relief from the scorching heat of the summer.
Yet for all the beauty born out of meticulous care, the garden path is maddeningly short. It dead-ends in a matter of steps against the darkened entryway of the Anniston Museum of Natural History. The museum, however, now has concrete plans to do something about it.
This fall, the museum complex, which includes the Berman Museum of World History, will begin building and landscaping Anniston’s first botanical gardens on the site of Lenlock Community Center, once it closes. In tandem with the beginning development of the long-term garden project, Anniston will also begin construction on its first competitive-sized aquatic center and sports complex.
The two projects showcase the Parks and Recreation Department’s plan to generate revenue through the development of visitor attractions and improvement of Anniston’s quality of life by reallocating its facilities, services and resources.
Organizers of the gardens and the sports and aquatic center hope that the new facilities will bring in visitors from the surrounding counties. Don Hoyt, the city manager, also said an improved quality of life for the city will make it a more desirable location for new corporations and industry.
Natural History Museum Director Cheryl Bragg said the gardens already in place around the museum demonstrate there’s a desire to have formal gardens in Anniston.
“That’s what happened when volunteers who wanted a botanical garden didn’t have a location, so they came here and they created a botanical garden on our site. So we know they are ready to go. You can look at our grounds and see that they know what they’re doing,” she said.
Lindie Brown, the development director of the project, said the gardens have been a long time coming and people have been talking about the plan for 20 to 30 years. The gardens project is temporarily named Longleaf Botanical Gardens, after the large stand of native Alabama pines on the property.
Bragg said she thinks the gardens will not only be good for the community but also an economic boost for Anniston.
“I think the tourism draw is going to be huge. The museums make a $31.5 million economic impact on the community each year. And so adding a third site to this destination is going to be huge in the tourism,” said Bragg.
Two other cities in Alabama, Birmingham and Huntsville, regularly see hundreds of thousands of visitors to their gardens every year. Birmingham, which has gardens free of admission and is funded partly by the city and by private companies, receives more than 350,000 visitors each year, making it the most-visited free attraction in Alabama, said Andrew Krebbs, the gardens’ director of marketing.
The 67.5-acre gardens also provide rental facilities and educational programs, but Krebbs said that only 10,000 or so of the visitors each year are children on school trips. Most of the visitors are from the greater Birmingham metropolitan area.
Huntsville, on the other hand, charges its visitors but still manages to pull more than 300,000 tourists each year. Unlike Birmingham’s gardens, Huntsville’s gardens are run on donations and the money they receive from admission fees — $10 for adults and $5 for children, or a membership for the year starting at $45. The 120-acre garden has 35 paid employees during its busiest time of the year. Otherwise, it is run by 2,600 active volunteers, said Nicole Hogan, director of communications for Huntsville Botanical Gardens.
“It would not be able to be done without the volunteer force that we have,” she said.
Much like Huntsville’s gardens, Longleaf organizers plan to fund the gardens through donations and corporate sponsorships, but have not yet reached the construction stage. The first year of development consists mainly of planning, scheduling, researching, budgeting and fundraising, with construction beginning in the second year. By the third year organizers hope to open the garden so that everyone may get involved with development.
“We want people to feel like it’s their garden,” said Brown.
“As you grow with it, it gives you a sense of pride and ownership in it because you were there when the first seed was planted, you were there when the first opercula was built, you know you raise your children with it,” said Margie Conner, the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s marketing manager.
Despite the organizers’ enthusiasm for the gardens, development and planning of the gardens did not begin until the museums acquired the site.
When the Anniston Museum Complex heard the Lenlock center would be available, the group asked for the chance to take over.
Along with the existing building, the museum is also acquiring 65 acres of land for development, which organizers want to fill with gardens and walking trails.
“We hope to eventually have a loop so that a person could walk or bicycle all the way around,” said Bragg.
Initial plans for the area include many individual gardens and walking trails, as well as a renovation of the center. The building, which already has a decades-old tree growing indoors, will accommodate classes and exhibits such as orchid shows. Organizers also plan to turn the disused outdoor pool — at one time a picture-perfect location for public swmming, but now teeming with tadpoles — into a rainwater garden.
A preview of the future of the center and plans for the garden will be held Oct. 10, before construction begins.
Lenlock’s closing is part of the city’s realignment plan to save resources while providing better recreation facilities to the public. Steven Folks, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said his goal is to have one well-equipped and well-staffed community center in each ward. The staff from Lenlock will instead be sent to a planned therapeutic and senior center at McClellan.
A larger pool of users
McClellan will also be the site of a new aquatics and sports center that could be a draw for visitors.
Miller Gym, which the city inherited from the Army, will undergo a radical change into an expanded sports complex and competitive and recreational aquatic center to serve the entirety of Calhoun County and bring in revenue, according to Folks and Hoyt.
Plans for Miller include doubling the size of the existing gymnasium, adding more concessions areas, a new weight room and upper-level meeting rooms, said Jay Jenkins of Jenkins Munroe Jenkins Architecture, the firm planning the project’s construction.
But the grand attraction will be an eight-lane, 7-foot-deep competition and recreational pool with a poolside seating capacity of 175 and a shallow end for recreation.
“It’s targeting regional swimming meets,” said Jenkins.
Swim meets can draw lot of visitors, and money. Tom Healey is the executive secretary for Southeast Swimming, the Alabama and Tennessee division for USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. He said the city where he coaches, Auburn, receives between $75 million and $100 million in revenue annually from competitive swim meets.
The meets can last up to three days, and traveling teams spend money on food, lodging and transportation, Healey said.
“I think it’s going to pay for itself,” said Folks.
The new aquatic center will be welcome relief for the four public swimming pools that Anniston has now, Folks said.
The public pools, two indoor and two outdoor, provide a variety of services such as lifeguard classes, aerobics and arthritic therapeutic services, not to mention general recreation. But Folks said that the department is limited to what it can do with the space it has and wants to transfer some of the programs to the new center when it is available.
All that the project is waiting on before it begins is for money to hit the bank, said Folks.
That money will come through the Recovery Zone Bond Program, part of the federal stimulus package passed in 2009, said Hoyt. The program allows Anniston to buy taxable bonds, which are practically tax-free because of a tax credit that comes with them, at very favorable rates.
Once the center is open, the debt service on the bonds will be paid for by the center’s revenue, he said.
Anniston is eligible for $5.4 million of these bond funds, said Jerrod Simmons, Anniston’s assistant finance director. He said the majority of the money would be spent on the aquatic center and sports complex. He said the city expects to spend between $4 million and $4.5 million on the project.
Once construction starts the city has 360 days to finish the facilities. Folks said he expects to open the center to the public by sometime next summer.