Botanica breaks ground on its new children's garden

Bob Simpson's father was head of Simpson & Associates when the construction company built Botanica almost 25 years ago. Today, the company is embarking on what Simpson, now at the company's helm, calls the renaissance of Botanica: the new Downing Children's Garden.

Construction of the garden is expected to begin in the next couple of weeks. On Thursday, 80 children from the Independent School, wearing white plastic hard hats and carrying little green and blue trowels, joined organizers and city officials in breaking ground for the new garden. It is expected to be completed in a year.

"Opening a garden is a way of making a better world," said Emmanuel Didier of the landscape architecture design firm EDAW in Fort Collins, Colo. EDAW came up with the conceptual design for the garden.

Sitting on an acre just west of Botanica across Sim Park Drive, the children's garden will include a farm where kids can do their own planting, a "monster woods" of whimsical tree creatures, a musical maze and a plaza featuring Kansas history.

Simpson said such whimsy is "not our typical fare" as a construction company, but he said, "I promise you will be surprised and amazed" at the result. He said its interactivity, different flavor and focus on a younger crowd would open Botanica to the wider community.

The garden is seen as essential to the future of Botanica, which has struggled financially along with other city attractions. Botanica recently cut its full-time volunteer director and part-time adult-education coordinator, their jobs being taken up by volunteers and help from Kansas State University Research & Extension, said Botanica director Marty Miller. A seasonal gardener, on the other hand, has been added thanks to cultural arts funding.

"We're holding our own," Miller said. "We're in better shape than we were last year, but we're not where I want us to be yet. But we're not in trouble."

Money for the $3 million children's garden has come from grants and large and small donations, the keystone gift being $1.5 million from Barry and Paula Downing, for whom the garden is named. The city of Wichita has approved $1.56 million for water, sewer and road work.

To provide access to the children's garden, a new Sim Park Drive will be built in a different configuration, but the current winding road will remain open during construction, Miller said.

The children's garden is the first stage of what Botanica hopes will be a 27-acre expansion. Next up: a $1.5 million education center that will sit at the entrance to the children's garden and include two classrooms and an outdoor classroom, already paid for by Boeing.

And while the children's garden will be the main event in 2011, Miller said, it will be followed by another big year: Botanica's 25th anniversary celebration in 2012.

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