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RBG builds on need to escape

RBG builds on need to escape

  She’s been on the job just 20 days, and met only a fraction of the staff, but the new boss of the Royal Botanical Gardens isn’t daunted by a super-sized To Do list.

  “I’m a problem solver,” Rowland said in a phone interview from her office at RBG Headquarters.

Nancy Rowland CEO Royal Botanical Gardens

  Due to Covid, she’s coming in to work one to two days a week, to a building that is mostly empty. Hired  before Christmas, Rowland has yet to see all the land under her management, 2,700 acres, ranging from groomed gardens to forest trails to Cootes Paradise-a critical marsh still healing from a four year City of Hamilton sewage leak.

  One of the first tasks of the job was to appear before Hamilton city council and ask for a two per cent increase in the city’s annual grant to the RBG.

  “That would bring the grant to just over $800,000,” Rowland said.

 As a past GM at Ontario Place and CEO at the Ontario Science Centre, Rowland is experienced in the never ending rustle for money for public institutions.

  Despite a steep drop in revenue due to Covid restrictions, Rowland sees sunny days ahead for the RBG.

  “Public engagement in open space is stronger than ever.”

Trails at the RBG have been a popular escape during Covid
Kathy Renwald photo

  One can judge from the crammed parking lots at RBG trails, that a walk in nature has never been more cherished by the public. But while the RBG collects parking money, there is no turnstile at the trailhead.

  RBG has always had to balance the protection of open space with the pressing need to generate the money to support conservation and science, a challenge Rowland mentioned several times in the interview.

   A blueprint for the future awaited Rowland’s arrival. A just finished 25 year master plan was completed under the tenure of outgoing CEO Mark Runciman.

  “It’s not going to sit on the shelf,” Rowland said. “The team is ready to do it.”

  The ambitious Master Plan calls for the rejuvenation of the Arboretum, and the Laking Garden, a reimagined Hendrie Park and headquarters building, a wellness retreat and upgrades to trails.

The RBG Master Plan calls for improvements to garden areas including Hendrie Park and the Laking Garden
Kathy Renwald photo

  Some of the improvements are long overdue, and they all require money. Rowland wants to see memberships increase, new donors cultivated and RBG strengthened as a major tourist destination.

  “A benefit here is that we have nimble space,” Rowland said. That nimble space allowed the RBG to move the Winter Wonders event from the Rock Garden to Hendrie Park where the space was safer for visitors.

  She would like to see more use of the Arboretum, an area that has lost some of its luster over the years in my opinion. While the lilacs remain an attraction, the fruit tree and shrub collection have lost vigour. The Arboretum could host more “ticketed events” Rowland said.

  With admission ranging from $10 to $18, the RBG is expensive for a family visit, unless they have a membership. I asked Rowland if they might consider more flexible ticketing, such as the Annual Pass that the Art Gallery of Ontario introduced.

  “We are looking at ways for access to the RBG for those who can’t afford it,” she said.

  Rowland grew up in Hamilton, attended Stinson School, skated at Cootes Paradise, and her parents had a membership at RBG.

  She would like to see the RBG “experience” powerful enough that young people visiting might imagine their future after their engagement with nature and the gardens.

RBG has to balance protecting open space and having events that generate revenue. Kathy Renwald photo

   As people migrate from Toronto to the Hamilton area, Rowland sees the potential in making RBG part of the draw.

  “People in Aldershot consider the RBG as their backyard, as the population grows they see the value in a place to escape.”

  So now is the time to set priorities, the new CEO says, while trying to balance the need to protect open space with the need to create experiences that pay for the caretaking of 2,700 acres.

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