June 12, 2017

Riding attendance surge, Tower Hill CEO plans expansion

PHOTOS/EDD Cote
Grace Elton, the new CEO of Tower Hill Botanic Garden, was born into this role, so to speak, as her parents met while working together at Everglades National Park.

Perusing hundreds of varieties of trees, or acres of flowers and bushes: Pastimes don't get much more old-fashioned than that.

If it would seem like Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston might be struggling to attract ever-busier adults or more technology-crazed youngsters, the opposite has actually been the case.

From 2012 to last year, annual attendance jumped by two-thirds, to nearly 140,000.

"In the last five years, it's really skyrocketed," said Grace Elton, Tower Hill's new CEO.

Tower Hill's attendance outpaces the national trend, as attendance at the 600 members of the American Public Gardens Association rose more than 5 percent to 121 million, the group reported this spring. That includes nearly 1.5 million children on field trips.

Elton took over as the head of the garden in April, joining an organization whose upward momentum will benefit a planned expansion to include a $5-million children's garden, and a larger orchard and conservatory. The parking lot will double in size – with landscaping a priority, of course.

"I'm even worried that might not be enough," Elton said of the parking expansion. On one recent Sunday, she said, Tower Hill had to temporarily close its gates at French Drive because it ran out of parking spaces.

The expanded children's garden will span three acres, including an amphitheater and water features always popular with young visitors. A later phase of work will redo the main visitors building and the restaurant, Twigs Cafe, on the 132-acre property first opened in 1986, expanding in phases over the years.

The new CEO

Elton, a 35-year-old Florida native, has been in the business practically her whole life. Her parents met while working at Everglades National Park, and she recalls walking among rows of orange, grapefruit and other fruit trees growing up.

"I didn't think I had a choice," she said of going into horticulture.

Elton studied environmental horticulture at the University of Florida and got a master's in horticultural administration at the University of Delaware. She was an adjunct professor and arboretum supervisor at the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University in Philadelphia, and from 2011 to earlier this year was the director of horticulture at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden outside Richmond, Va.

Elton wanted to be a garden director but said she wasn't looking until she got a call from a recruiter. She's living now in Grafton with her husband, Alexander Elton, after taking over the permanent CEO role from Kathy Abbott, who left in May 2016 to work in Boston on waterfront issues.

Jim Karadimos, the president of Tower Hill's board of trustees, lauded Elton's background in horticulture and said she stood out among wonderful candidates in a year-long search and hiring process.

"She was well-positioned to strengthen Tower Hill's reach," he said.

Reaching a wider audience

Under Elton's leadership, Tower Hill is working to be more relevant with events like a Botanical Tattoo Weekend July 8 and 9. Visitors will be able to watch tattoo demonstrations, try a temporary tattoo or face-painting, listen to live music and sample from food trucks.

On other days, tai chi, drawing or watercolor classes attract people who might not necessarily want to roam the grounds.

"We want everyone to feel welcome here," Elton said.

Although Tower Hill is only 31 years old, its parent organization, the Worcester County Horticultural Society, was founded in 1842 and says it's the third-oldest such group in the country.

"For a 175-year-old organization, our agility and our relevance is really remarkable," Karadimos said, crediting Tower Hill's ability to draw all ages for various activities.

"If you make it fun, who couldn't help but love it?" he said. "It's a great way to learn."

Christina Andreoli, the president of the tourism agency Discover Central Massachusetts, credited Tower Hill with making itself a unique destination as one of few botanical gardens or arboretums in the state. It has also attracted visitors to its function space and through other programming, she said.

"It becomes unique and something people are drawn to," Andreoli said. "That's a sign that they're doing it correctly. They're doing it right."

Among the Tower Hill members are Kate and Henry Blais of Charlton. The couple said they've been members for a few years, finding it a great place to get exercise with their 9-year-old son or look at some greenery even in winter inside the greenhouse-like conservatories. That Tower Hill also has a dense number of Pokemon Go characters for the mobile video game is a plus, Kate Blais said with a laugh.

"It's a beautiful place to come," she said.

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