BOOTHBAY, Maine — A 22,000-square-foot glass conservatory, expanded gardens and year-round visitation are among the key features of a 20-year master plan that Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens hopes will launch in the fall of 2017.
The multimillion-dollar expansion is necessary, according to the board of directors, to accommodate the rapidly growing number of visitors to the gardens each year.
This winter, the 9-year-old nonprofit organization welcomed a record 27,000 people to its Gardens Aglow display, exceeding in just 15 days the number of visitors who visited in August, its previous best month, according to executive director William Cullina.
“The last thing we want to do is lock the gates and say, ‘Come back later, we’re full,’” Cullina said Wednesday.
When they opened in 2007, the gardens were designed for a maximum capacity of 40,000 visitors each year, according to Cullina. They reached that number the first season, and have since doubled the size of the property.
With Gardens Aglow as proof that people will travel the Boothbay peninsula to visit the gardens in the winter, the new master plan includes seasonal displays in the conservatory such as holiday decorations during the Gardens Aglow period, followed by a winter garden and then a spring show featuring, perhaps, orchids and butterflies.
The plan also includes accessible trails throughout the property’s blueberry barrens, wetlands, boreal forests and bogs, and potentially expanding to add educational and camp programs, and create horticulture and research facilities to develop plant species able to survive Maine’s climate, Cullina said.
Also envisioned is a program based in the property’s 1800s saltwater farm that would adapt lessons from homesteads in that era, such as composting and digging a root cellar, to today.
The expansion would be funded — as is the existing facility — primarily through private contributions with a capital campaign to follow.
Year-round visitation will allow the organization to almost double its current staff of 42 year-round and about 50 seasonal employees, Cullina said, and act as a draw for surrounding businesses that would benefit from increased attendance at the gardens.
According to Cullina, a 2014 study estimated a combined direct and indirect annual economic impact of the existing gardens at $26 million, a figure that would grow to $75 million each year by the completion of the capital plan.
The project still must be approved by town, state and federal regulatory boards, but Cullina said he’s hopeful to break ground by 2017.
“It’s going to be a real transformational thing, not only for us but for the whole region,” he said. “I think that’s one of the cool things about it, that a cultural organization can be able to do that for Maine.”