… others follow. Though they shun the spotlight, Buz Brenton, Janis Ruan, Tom Urban and Fred Weitz are driving the efforts to transform the Botanical Center into a world-class public garden.
Written by Christine Riccelli
Photos by Duane Tinkey
J.C. “Buz” Brenton impatiently waves off a question about his role in initiating the ambitious $11.6 million plan to revitalize, expand and rebrand the 32-year-old Des Moines Botanical & Environmental Center into the new Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
“I know you’re interested in background, but the real story is what we have now,” he insisted during a February interview at the Botanical Center. “The real story is this woman (Botanical Garden CEO and President Stephanie Jutila), this board, this plan. The other stuff is history. It’s sort of interesting, but it’s not the real story to me at all. We’re well beyond that.”
Brenton has a point: Plans to turn the Botanical Center into a first-rate public garden are moving forward at a faster clip than many anticipated. As of this issue’s press deadline in mid-March, more than $9.7 million in capital funds had been raised; $645,000 a year in operational support had been secured for the first 10 years; a phone and direct-mail fund-raising drive was in the works; and the landscape architect was designing the master plan for the 14-acre riverfront campus.
The first phase will include closing a section of Robert D. Ray Drive in front of the center to add extensive new outdoor gardens; making significant upgrades to the interior space; and expanding programming for both children and adults (see page 124). What’s more, on Jan. 1, 2013, Des Moines Water Works is expected to turn over operations of the center to the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, a 501(c)(3) organization that was formed in late 2007 to oversee the expansion project and eventually assume management of the facility. That also will be the center’s new name.
These developments have involved the work of numerous individuals, but if it weren’t for Brenton and three other major players—Fred Weitz, Tom Urban and Janis Ruan—chances are there wouldn’t be that “real story” Brenton wants to emphasize.
Observers and insiders agree that the vision, connections, efforts—and wallets—of these four community leaders are the critical factors that propelled the project forward.
“As I work in the community, I have been told many times how fortunate the Botanical Garden is to have Buz, Tom, Fred and Janis behind this project, which is quickly followed up with the faith that with these four on board, we will be able to make the project a reality,” says Jutila, who joined the organization last December as its first president and CEO. “Certainly we have gained the support and vote of confidence from many people in the community as a result of our leadership team and their vision.”
“This is definitely a leadership dream team; it’s the perfect blend of personalities,” says Michelle Gowdy, director of citizenship and development at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., who serves on the capital campaign committee and on the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden’s governing board. “I knew from the first meeting that this project had legs and would be successful. They lead in a way that complements one another and brings the community together.”
Weitz, Urban and Ruan credit Brenton with being the first one to plant the seed for renewal, back in 2007. “Buz was the guy who really started it,” Weitz says, adding that Brenton had been a leader in establishing the Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa chapter of the The Nature Conservancy. “In each case, he’d recruit other people to come along and make it work.”
Brenton, who founded the Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center and is known among his friends for such adventurous pursuits as swimming the English Channel, says he was simply responding to an obvious need when he started floating the idea of a revitalized Botanical Center. “Anybody who walked around here (the Botanical Center) could see it was suffering,” he says. “It just so happened that there were a few of us with enough time on our hands to get together and do something about it. Another time, it might not have been.
“Everybody says it was (my) idea, but ideas are cheap,” he adds. “Ideas are all over the place. The implementation could only come about when several people got together.”
In late 2007, Brenton recruited Urban, Ruan and Rob Shumaker, then the board president of the Friends of the Des Moines Botanical Center & Environmental Center and a respected scientist at Great Ape Trust. (Shumaker moved to Indianapolis in 2010 after the trust was reorganized.) Urban, a former Des Moines mayor and a past chairman, president and CEO of Pioneer Hi-Bred, needed no persuading to get involved. An avid gardener, Urban also has served as chairman of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Ruan shares Urban’s passion for gardening. A member of the Des Moines Founders Garden Club, she led the streetscape beautification projects along Fleur Drive and Ingersoll Avenue and the development of the gardens at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.
Weitz, widely admired for his straight-shooting practicality,
joined the leadership team in 2009. “I can’t claim to be here because of my great knowledge of botanical gardens,” says Weitz, who ran The Weitz Co. until he retired in 1995. “I guess I just like projects, and this was something I could understand the need for. I’d seen enough (world-class) botanical gardens (to know) that we didn’t have one and that we needed one.
“And I like Buz,” he adds.
The four weren’t strangers to one another when they decided to collaborate. Urban and Brenton have known each other since they were children; they grew up in the same neighborhood and attended Hanawalt Elementary School. In the 1970s, they worked together on the project to build the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. Weitz and Urban have been close personal friends for years, their families often traveling together on vacations. Weitz also served on Pioneer’s board when Urban led the company. Ruan is longtime friends with the other three, and Weitz, Urban and Ruan serve together on the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines’ board of directors.
Laying the Groundwork
Throughout 2009 and 2010, the four worked behind the scenes to move the project forward. Ruan tapped Doug Hoerr (pronounced “hare”), principal of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects of Chicago, to design a landscape vision plan. “Buz called me and asked if we should invite Doug in, and I said absolutely,” recalls Ruan. Hoerr and Ruan had met in 2001, when Hoerr gave a talk on streetscapes to the Des Moines Founders Garden Club, and, says Ruan, “the rest is history.” Since then, Hoerr and Ruan have worked together on the Fleur Drive and Ingersoll Avenue street plantings and the World Food Prize garden.
“We’re quite thrilled with him,” Ruan says. “I’ve told him he should just move here.”
“I’m one of (Des Moines’) biggest promoters,” Hoerr said in a phone interview from his Chicago office. “People say to me, ‘Des Moines? Really?’ And I tell them that it’s an amazing and vibrant place. … When Des Moines sets its mind to do something, (the city) gets it done it in a top-notch way.”
Hoerr developed a $20 million concept that included both outdoor gardens and an exhibit hall addition to the Botanical Center’s current geodesic dome display area. But given that the economy was in the tank, the proposal was too expensive and most likely beyond what the community could support, Urban and Weitz say. The vision plan eventually was revised to half that, $10 million. The campaign’s success prompted the board in mid-March to boost the goal to $11.6 million, which includes $2.4 million for an endowment. (See story, left, to read about some of Hoerr’s plans for the site.)
Weitz took the lead role in sifting through and analyzing numbers. “(What) I did was worry about the costing,” Weitz says. “When Hoerr Schaudt submitted their plans … I thought that some of their unit prices looked high. While I haven’t had any formal connection with the Weitz company since I retired, I was still friends with them. So I got (the company) to give us free estimating time.”
“Fred brings a tremendous financial acumen” to the project, says Allison Fleming, chair of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and a member of the project’s capital campaign committee. “He’s wonderful with numbers and at understanding and getting the resources for the physical part of the project.”
In addition to needing capital and endowment funds, the project also required support from the public sector to ensure its long-term success, Weitz, Urban and Brenton emphasize. “The raising of money for operations (was) critical,” Brenton says. “Efforts were spent to (secure) that … before we took on the challenge of the capital campaign.”
Rick Daley, with St. Louis-based EMD Consulting Group LLC, and Weitz put together an operational budget calling for $800,000 in annual public funding. Brenton and Urban took the lead in presenting their case for funding to the city of Des Moines, Polk County, Des Moines Water Works and Bravo Greater Des Moines.
Urban met with the Bravo board, and in September 2010, Bravo agreed to boost its annual support of the Botanical Center from $195,000 to $245,000. “Tom made his case and sold the concept well,” says MD Isley, Bravo’s executive director. “But the board also did its own independent investigation to make sure we were supporting (the project) for all the right reasons.”
Those reasons include the Botanical Center’s strong place in the city’s cultural landscape; how the rejuvenated facility will fit into downtown’s overall revitalization, including its position as an anchor on the Principal Riverwalk;
and the fact that the new Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden will be operated as a nonprofit organization instead of under a city department, say both Isley and Suku Radia, president of Bankers Trust Co. and Bravo’s board president. Radia also serves on the Botanical Garden’s campaign committee and board.
Still, “the fact that these folks (the four leaders) lined up behind it, putting their names, energies and wallets out front, spoke well of the project,” Isley adds. “They had a good plan and made impressive efforts to ensure the organization is positioned to have a long life.”
Weitz negotiated with the city of Des Moines on the lease. “If you’re a contractor, you better be able to read contracts,” Weitz says. “And I have the patience to (deal) with details.” Ruan also asked the Ruan Cos.’ general counsel, Susan Fitzsimmons, to help with negotiations. Fitzsimmons also had worked with the city during the process to turn the old Des Moines Public Library building over to the World Food Prize Foundation, which restored the building to house the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.
In the spring of 2011, a lease agreement with the city was reached that also includes the city providing $200,000 a year for 10 years in operating support. Des Moines Water Works, which has been operating the Botanical Center since 2004, will contribute $200,000 per year in in-kind services, such as staff for maintenance and engineering support. Water Works’ services will be “for pieces we otherwise would’ve had to pay in cash to run this facility,” Jutila says. (The Polk County Board of Supervisors has so far provided a one-time grant of $100,000; the Botanical Garden board plans to ask for additional funding in the future.)
The project “is a great example of a public-private partnership,” says Radia, noting it involves government bodies, nonprofit organizations, the corporate sector and citizen input and contributions. “It’s the right thing for this community.”
Although public funding fell $155,000 short of the goal, the leadership team decided in May 2011 to form the governing board of directors for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and launch the capital campaign. The board also hired EMD Consulting Group to conduct a national search for the garden’s president and CEO.
The four recruited some of the metro area’s most influential leaders (see page 123) to serve on the campaign committee, making them an offer they wouldn’t refuse. “Tom called me up and said, ‘I’d really like you to become involved with this,’” Radia recalls. “I serve on 14 boards … and so I told him, ‘Tom I’m over-extended, but I will not say no to you.’”
“Have you ever tried to say no to Fred Weitz and Janis Ruan?” Fleming says. “When people like them ask you to get involved, you say yes.”
But before asking others to give, and raise, money, Brenton, Ruan, Urban and Weitz pledged a total of $2.5 million of their own funds. Their personal contributions “set the tone for others,” Gowdy says. “They’ve all led by example, not only bringing their special skills and connections to the project, but also their cash.”
“We knew we’d have to make our pledges first,” Brenton says. “Others will come along only if they know we’re all in.”
Those “others” needed to include corporations, the leadership team knew. A few months earlier, Renaissance Group Inc., a Des Moines consulting company, had completed a campaign feasibility study. The report came to “a sort of less-than-total-confidence-giving conclusion that we could probably do that (raise $10 million) provided we secured a lead gift,” Weitz recalls.
In pursuit of that gift, Urban returned to his old stomping grounds, Pioneer. The request was sent to the corporate headquarters of Pioneer’s parent company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., in Wilmington, Del., and in June 2011, DuPont announced a $3 million contribution, to be paid over a three-year period. “The trick has been the support of DuPont,” Urban says. “You just need to say that. Without DuPont, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Gowdy says DuPont decided to contribute the lead gift because the Botanical Garden will “create a center of learning for critical issues DuPont is working to address,” such as food security, protecting the environment and science education.
Brenton, Weitz and others say Urban took the lead role in organizing the fund-raising drive. Urban is “willing to be the point man in many ways,” Fleming says. “He’s brought (to the project) all the skills he learned at Pioneer about how to get people working together toward a common goal.”
“Tom is a get-it-done guy,” Gowdy adds. “I’ve never been in a more efficient board meeting than one Tom has run.”
As the campaign committee members started making calls, momentum grew. One reason financial pledges came more quickly than anticipated was the leadership team’s proactive approach to planning, those interviewed agree. “They didn’t just look at the renovation but at what would be happening 10 or 15 years down the road,” Gowdy says. “There were very few questions that people could ask that weren’t answered. The (project) has been very artfully planned and executed. Nothing about it has been random.”
Some of the major donors so far include the John Ruan Foundation Trust, Bankers Trust, Casey’s General Stores Inc., the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and Kemin Industries (see list on page 123). The Botanical Garden also received a $250,000 grant from Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
At this issue’s mid-March deadline, the next fund-raising phase was beginning—a phone and direct-mail drive to tap Botanical Center members as well the general public. As with the capital campaign, Brenton, Ruan, Urban and Weitz are putting the proverbial skin in the game: They’re offering a 1-for-1 match for every dollar raised up to $150,000.
The Botanical Garden also is applying for grants from Vision Iowa and The Kresge Foundation.
“We have a ways to go, of course,” Ruan says, “…but I think we’re getting there.”
The Passion and the Promise
Those involved with the project say the four leaders are skillful not only at developing a solid plan and asking for money but at communicating, and living, their passions.
“I’ve known every one of them for more than 35 years,” Radia says. “There was absolutely no reason why they had to become involved with this project; they’ve paid their dues. For them, it’s all about the community and making it better.”
Ruan brings a sense of grace and elegance to the table, friends say. She “works very hard to see that that Des Moines puts its best foot forward,” Fleming says “She brings a positive can-do attitude toward everything … and has a kind, gentle way of getting things done.”
Steering clear of the limelight, Ruan deflects attention from herself. “Beautification is an easy sell,” she says. “People love the outdoors and to have venues that they can enjoy with their families. This (project) has appeal for everyone.”
Urban is passionate about the goal to significantly expand outreach efforts that will bring underserved populations and diverse communities to the Botanical Garden as well as to its revamped, interactive website. He also grows animated as he talks about how the new Botanical Garden will cooperate closely with other local institutions, such as Living History
Farms, the Science Center of Iowa and Blank Park Zoo, to offer integrated programming and extensive educational offerings.
Additional expansion—outdoors, indoors and with programming—will eventually follow this initial $11.6 million phase, although succeeding campaigns won’t be as large as this one, Urban, Weitz and Brenton agree. In fact, the overall project “is never finished,” Brenton says. The Botanical Garden “is a dynamic, living organism that will always need money, will always need good people and will always be developing.”
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden Board of Directors
Not pictured: N. Brian Gentry and Adriana A. Flores
Tom Urban, co-chairperson
Fred Weitz, co-chairperson
J.C. “Buz” Brenton
Bob Riley Jr.
John Ruan Foundation Trust
Casey’s General Stores, Inc.
Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines
EMC Insurance Foundation
Thomas and Linda Koehn
Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino
Principal Financial Group Foundation Inc.
Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust
Willis Auto Campus
Proposed Expansion Expenditures*
Includes display gardens, seasonal and specialty gardens (such as water, perennial and herb gardens), an event lawn, riverside gardens, walking paths, an entry drive, a pedestrian arrival plaza, parking and the removal of part of Robert D. Ray Drive.
The Botanical Center’s proximity to the river and the Principal Riverwalk, as well as the views it offers, creates a “unique set up,” Doug Hoerr, principal of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, said in a phone interview from his Chicago office. “It will allow us to knit together a series of world-class gardens to create many different types of garden experiences.”
The gardens will be designed to serve as a venue for family fun, special events, horticulture education and a variety of other activities, Hoer says, and will be built at varying elevations to provide different views of the city.
Includes relocating the restaurant, remodeling the gift shop and offices, improving the display areas and installing a new kitchen.
Includes campaign costs, interest on the construction loan and operating costs during construction.
For long-term financial security for operations, education and programming.
* Note: As of press time, the expenditures (except for the endowment) hadn’t been specifically refigured to reflect the new fund-raising goal.
Source: Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.