Author: Jessie Holmes
The value of North Carolina’s public gardens was never more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus spread and threatened the safety of indoor activities, many people turned to the outdoors. Attendance nearly doubled at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville.
“People found the Arboretum as a refuge, as a place to get peace during the pandemic, to reconnect with nature,” says Deputy Director Drake Fowler.
With 434 acres to explore, including cultivated gardens, trails, and exhibits, visitors could socially distance and still experience much of the Arboretum’s natural beauty. But while daily visitation grew, the Arboretum’s primary sources of revenue – events – were canceled or drastically modified. Winter Lights, their largest fundraiser, was creatively converted to a drive-thru in 2020 but still resulted in a 50% drop in revenue. Meanwhile, couples canceled or delayed their garden weddings.
“Many of those weddings did not come back when restrictions were lifted,” says Fowler.
North Carolina Arboretum Protects Visitors, Staff
The North Carolina Arboretum was determined to stay open and safely phase in more activities and events for its growing number of visitors. But Fowler says that would have been more difficult without the financial assistance it received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Congress passed ARPA in March 2021 to help state and local governments address the economic and health effects of COVID-19. North Carolina received $5.4 billion in State Fiscal Recovery Funds. State legislators allocated $138,000 to the Arboretum, in addition to grants for other public gardens.
Fowler says they primarily used their ARPA funds to cover the expense of protecting visitors and staff, including the purchase of PPE, and laptops for employees who could work remotely. Funds also went towards buying more vehicles for horticulture staff so they could socially distance and still travel the expansive site to perform their duties. Even as North Carolina emerged from the worst of the pandemic and indoor spaces became safe again, the Arboretum’s ability to safely welcome as many people as possible had a lasting impact. Membership grew from 12,000 households to 17,000.
“Urban people need to have green spaces, and I think we rediscovered that in the pandemic,” says Fowler.
Today, those additional membership fees continue to support the Arboretum and its mission to connect people and plants through education, design, and economic development.
Cape Fear Botanical Garden Expands Educational Opportunities
Legislators also provided a $321,000 ARPA grant to the Cape Fear Botanical Garden in Fayetteville. Like the Arboretum, it experienced an influx of visitors during the pandemic, even as it had to cancel or modify many of its events, including those related to education. Not only has educational programming returned, it’s also expanding. This year, Cape Fear Botanical Garden used a portion of its funds to provide free field trips to over 2,500 children from Title I schools in Cumberland, Robeson, Harnett, Hoke, and Scotland counties. Topics ranged from soil science, to photosynthesis and forest exploration.
“It gets kids that exposure to a natural area that they may not have otherwise had,” says CEO Chris Hoffman. “Some of the benefits that we see kids have is perhaps overcoming a fear of holding a snake or a worm, or learning where a tomato comes from.”
Additional funds were dedicated to training horticulture staff, re-engaging volunteers, and a tourism campaign to help reach new communities. Starting this fall, Cape Fear Botanical Garden will also offer a newly developed history and agriculture field trip program centered around its heritage garden, which is being revitalized with remaining ARPA grant money. That includes better walkways for accessibility, a larger vegetable garden, and reestablished beehives through a partnership with the Cumberland County Beekeeper’s Association. Together, these initiatives will improve Cape Fear Botanical Garden’s reach and capacity so it can serve more people.
“One of the joys about getting to work in a place like this is making a difference in people’s lives,” says Hoffman. “Being able to connect with people and see them connect with nature.”
Environmental Conservation for Future Generations
While the pandemic emphasized the social and emotional benefits of public gardens, even North Carolinians who do not visit will still benefit from the economic stimulus they provide. These institutions also play a unique role in promoting environmental conservation, from the wealth of educational programming at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, to the Germplasm Repository at the North Carolina Arboretum, and the wildlife they all protect.
“We have black bears here on the property, and we have deer and all kinds of native plant communities,” says Fowler. “We pride ourselves on looking at the ecology of this place and taking people who are unfamiliar with that, and when they leave, they’re advocates of the natural world.”
The State’s investment of American Rescue Plan funds will help sustain these natural treasures for future generations of people, wildlife, and plants.