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Construction underway at Smithgall Woodland Garden
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Butterflies like the Lobelia siphilitica. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Work is moving along on Smithgall Woodland Garden, with crews building the entryway to the 168-acre site off Cleveland Highway in Gainesville.

“To cut the road, there are some scrub pines we’ve taken out, and there’s a big hole out front where they’re putting in the first storm drain,” said Mildred Pinnell Fockele, vice president of horticulture for the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

“The first part isn’t very exciting. It takes a while to get the road in and get set up, and the road is where all the infrastructure and utilities will go.”

Excitement is building about the project, however.

“It’s a mess, but it’s the best mess I’ve seen in a long time,” Fockele said.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is developing the site at 351 Lakehill Drive, north of Limestone Parkway. Gainesville resident Lessie Smithgall and her late husband, Charles Smithgall, founders of The Times, donated the property in 2002.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held April 17 for the $21 million first phase of development, which will include construction of a wooded entry road, a visitor center, a 2,000-seat amphitheater and about 5 acres of display gardens.

Plans also call for an interactive children’s garden, a native plant conservation nursery and a student training and education center.

“The goal is, by October, to have the road graded in and the site set up for (crews) to put a construction trailer up and simultaneously do the grading for the visitor center,” Fockele said. “And then, in January, they’ll start working on the gardens and the amphitheater.

“That’s sort of the rough timeline.”

Construction is slated to end in May or June, with the garden opening possibly in the fall of 2014 “to give things a chance to grow and settle in,” Fockele said.

The buildings and roads are expected to take up about 15 acres, leaving more than 150 acres for walking trails and the woodland gardens.

A horticultural operation already has been set up at the site, including a greenhouse and 3-acre conservation nursery, which the Atlanta Botanical Garden describes as the largest in the Southeast.

“There’s a lot of stuff growing and blooming,” greenhouse manager Ethan Guthrie said.

At the April 17 ceremony, Smithgall described the project as “a dream come true.

“I know how excited Charlie would be because it was his dream to create a woodland area close to the city where city folk could come and enjoy nature, hiking, swimming, even picnicking if they pick up their picnic trash and put it in the trash,” she said.

“You can understand how I feel to see this happen and to know that it was his dream and that this would be done.”

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