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Smithgall Woodland Garden moves closer to reality
Official: Park set to open next year
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Carol O’Connor, left, and Lola Cunningham take a walk through the site of the future botanical gardens at the Smithgall Woodland Garden during Tuesday’s Spring Evening in the Woodlands. The Smithgall Woodland Garden is close to achieving its fundraising goal to begin construction.

The Smithgall Woodland Garden is $1.1 million away from becoming a staple in the Gainesville community for years to come.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden opened up the garden to a group of invited guests Tuesday night to show them what the development will grow to be.

Organizers of the woodland garden also announced they are close to putting the capstone on their first phase of fundraising.

In the last leg of fundraising efforts to reach the $21 million goal, the garden received an additional $4.5 million in grants and gifts.

According to Mary Pat Matheson, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s executive director, the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation provided the garden with a $2.5 million grant.

The grant needs to be matched with $1.1 million by the garden’s fundraising efforts by June of next year.

A separate $2 million gift was also given to the garden by Doug and Kay Ivester.

The money all but makes the garden a reality for Gainesville.

“It’ll open next year,” said Matheson. “I’m very confident in that.”

The woodland garden has been in the works since 2001 when Charles and Lessie Smithgall donated their 185-acre property off Cleveland Highway to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The Smithgalls also started the fundraising with a $3 million endowment, which the botanical garden matched with $2 million.

“It’s (Charles’) dream come true,” said Lessie Smithgall. “He was an outdoorsman and he loved the outdoors. We used to trek through the woods everywhere we went. He wanted to have a place other people could feel the same way he did — to enjoy nature.”

Those in attendance got a sneak peak at what the woodland garden will provide its patrons.

The first phase of construction includes an entry lane off U.S. 129, a parking area, a visitor center and a 4-acre garden.

“I think it’ll be the green heart of Gainesville,” said Matheson.

Future expansion calls for a children’s garden, a 1,600-seat amphitheater, a waterfall trail and an education center, among others.

“I think it’s going to be fabulous,” said Pam Bilyeu. “I think it’s going to be fabulous not only because it will be beautiful, but because it will be a destination point for our part of Georgia.”

The woodland garden will be split into four sections: the Wind Trail, the Water Trail, the Sky Trail and The Earth Trail. All four will have individually distinct features.

“We’re trying to bring the botanical garden into the woods and kind of meld the two together,” said Ethan Guthrie, the woodland garden’s nursery and greenhouse manager.

Gainesville residents say they are looking forward to the day the garden will open to the public.

“I think it’s going to be a marvelous asset to our community, as well as Atlanta,” said Jeane Parker. “You have to come and see for yourself.”

The garden will be home to hundreds of varieties of hydrangeas, magnolias, maples and witch hazels, and groundbreaking is slated for this year.

The park is scheduled to open, if fundraising stays on track, by the fall of 2013.

Once opened, the park, visionaries say, will attract people from all over the nation.

“I think people everywhere (will enjoy this garden),” said Smithgall. “This garden, within the city limits of Gainesville, is going to be known all over the country. And people will come here not on their way to Charlotte or to Florida, but as their destination. They’ll come to see the garden.”

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