How to donate
Send checks to Smithgall Woodland Garden, 351 Lakehill Drive, Gainesville, GA 30501. To learn more about other donor opportunities, call 770-297-5952.
Several Hall County community members are ready to turn 185 acres into one of the nation's largest hardwood botanical gardens.
The Smithgall Woodland Garden, contributed to the Atlanta Botanical Garden by Lessie and Charles Smithgall in 2001, is close to becoming a reality.
The $20 million fundraising campaign, New Seasons, lacks just $3 million before the first phase of development can begin on Lakehill Drive.
"Things are turning around. Everybody is having a tough time trying to raise money right now, but the economy is turning just a bit," said Sandra Bailey, who signed on early to be chairwoman of the campaign with her husband Jack and Peggy and Jim Walters.
"We're making progress and feeling wonderful about it."
The campaign has pulled in $1 million in the last three months, which Bailey attributes to Lessie Smithgall's 100th birthday on April 1.
"We think that's going to be a real boost because everyone loves her," Bailey said. "She keeps saying she wants to see that garden built while she's still on this earth, and she has such great wit. This year will really help us move along."
The garden, located less than a mile from the intersection of Cleveland Highway and Limestone Parkway, is expected to be a huge draw for tourists across Hall County and Northeast Georgia.
"I hope the community can realize this gift was a major thing for the community and the community's future," said Jack Burd, former president of Brenau University and a consultant to the campaign. "As a major attraction, it'll become a financial benefit for the hotels, restaurants and entire region. It's a major gift that will continue to grow in its value."
In fact, the idea of the economic boon drew Burd to the campaign.
"This 185 acres is going to be saved from having something like a strip mall put in, which was talked about, and is going to be kept like this for its future and as long as anybody can imagine," he said.
"It'll be an extremely aesthetic part of our community."
The first phases of development will include a visitor's center and winding trails, as well as a children's garden and amphitheater. Though not yet open to the public, a greenhouse on the property features the largest conservation nursery in the Southeast.
Several days a week, horticulturists visit the greenhouse to grow plants that will be used in the garden.
"We're thinking about activities such as a magnolia festival and hydrangea festival," said Mildred Fockele, horticulture director of the garden. "With 200 varieties of hydrangea here, you could imagine what this place will look like in June."
Outside of the greenhouse, Fockele and others are testing plants such as a species of evergreen magnolia to evaluate for heat and cold tolerance and aesthetics.
"I get to play with plants for a job and educate people about them, and what's better than that?" Fockele said with a smile. "We've been given a beautiful canvas to paint a garden on, and it's a stunning piece of property, especially when you watch how the property changes through the seasons. It's really a magical place."
Fockele said she enjoys painting a mental image of what the garden could be.
"Sometimes it's hard for people to visualize, but I've seen the Atlanta Botanical Garden from when it was nothing but a trailer expand to what it is today," she said. "Gainesville is a great cultural community with an art center, history center and nature center, and this woodland garden is the next piece of that."