August 3, 2011

Botanica prepares for expanded light show

While it was probably the furthest thing from Wichitans' heat-blurred minds on Tuesday, Christmas was in the air at Botanica.

While it was probably the furthest thing from Wichitans' heat-blurred minds on Tuesday, Christmas was in the air at Botanica.

Workers were already stringing lights as director Marty Miller announced that Botanica is setting out to become a major regional Christmas attraction.

Thanks to a local company's donation and new expenditures, the annual Illuminations event will jump light-years from its 40,000 bulbs to more than 700,000.

And it will be open not just a few weekends in November and December but nightly from the day after Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve. Only Christmas Eve and Christmas night will be dark.

"I'll bet that's more than the Plaza," Miller said Tuesday of the number of lights, and he is right — the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City is often touted as having 280,000, but one source calls that an urban legend and puts the number closer to 46,000.

"There won't be another area like this," David Hill, owner of Christmas Decor by Superior Home Services, said of what Botanica will look like. His company is donating $60,000 to $70,000 in labor to put up the lights. The corporate office of Christmas Decor also is donating at least $30,000 to $40,000 in lights, Hill said.

"This is a huge donation," Miller said. But Botanica is also spending $130,000 on the bulk of the lights.

"It's all part of the reinventing-Botanica process," Miller said. The opening of the children's garden in July was another element. Botanica had 8,380 visitors this July compared with 4,327 last July.

"We keep pushing the envelope out. We're trying to get past the status quo."

Miller said he talked to the operators of the botanical gardens of Denver and Boise, Idaho, and found "that's where they make the largest proportion of their budget is at their Christmas show."

Hill said he hoped to light a fire in Wichita's economy with his donation. He started the nonprofit One Spark Foundation ( to encourage acts of kindness. With the Botanica project he is challenging other businesses to step up, perhaps sponsoring the lighting of a tree, for example.

"I live here," Hill said. "I've reaped rewards and I'm trying to give back. ... Until we business people give back, I don't see a lot of change coming."

Hill said people from Dodge City, Garden City and Topeka will be visiting Wichita to attend Illuminations, and that will have benefits for other businesses.

"Restaurants and hotels are going to win," Hill said. "If we can get businesses behind this to make a major attraction happen, this city is going to win. We have to win. We need revenue put back in the city."

Hill said it will take a crew of five to 10 men working six days a week through about the end of September to get all the lights installed. He has his staff working now so that they will be able to tend to their regular holiday customers later in the year.

In the past, Botanica volunteers and staff put up the lights, starting in October. They still will be relied upon to staff Illuminations. Some of the summer staff will be retained to work the event, and Botanica is busy building up its volunteer base, Miller said.

He also is negotiating with vendors to provide food, freeing up volunteers who made cookies in the past.

The lights will be in every area of Botanica, Miller said, including the children's garden. The big mulberry tree in the meadow alone will be strung with 3,500 to 4,000 big C9 bulbs, Hill said.

And whereas most of Botanica's older lights are incandescent, all of the new ones will be LED, costing 8 to 10 percent of the energy usage of the incandescent bulbs, Hill said.

Christmas Decor in Denver also lights the botanical garden in that city, though Hill didn't know Tuesday how many lights it has.

Miller said the cost of admission to Illuminations would be the same as last year — $7 for adults and $5 for children.

Music performances will continue to be part of the event Friday through Tuesday nights, while party rentals will take the Terrace Room on Wednesday and Thursday nights, Miller said. The Fireside Room also will be available for rentals. The only element that will be missing from Christmas to New Year's Eve will be Santa Claus, Miller said.

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