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Banking on KC – Tabitha Schmidt of Powell Gardens

Banking on KC – Tabitha Schmidt of Powell Gardens

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Tabitha Schmidt, the CEO of Powell Gardens. Welcome, Tabitha.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Thank you, Kelly. I'm excited to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Powell Gardens has earned the moniker, "Kansas City's Botanical Gardens," and it certainly is a local gem. It's also received a lot of regional and national attention too. What about Powell Gardens makes it such a signature destination?

Tabitha Schmidt:

Most people don't know that Powell Gardens sits on a 970 acre footprint, plot of land. We actually are caring for 175 acres, open to the public now. Powell Gardens is a very unique botanical garden. It's more of a prairie garden. So one of the things that makes us very special is the expansive views. We're not a walled, tight garden, like you might find in an urban setting. We're very open. We're really all about the Midwestern landscape, so where the prairies and savannas meet. That's one of the things that makes us very unique.

Tabitha Schmidt:

The other thing that a lot of people don't know is that we actually have the most E. Fay Jones designed architecture in the world and E. Fay Jones was an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright. So when you come out here, our chapel, our Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel, is the most iconic building we have, and most people recognize it. But that is one of many designed by that firm. The other thing, I think, that's very interesting is, we do have a lot of variety out here.

Tabitha Schmidt:

We are about the Midwest spirit of place and the importance of plants in our lives. So you'll see perennial garden, woodland and stream garden. We have prairies and meadows, more manicured area. The Fountain Garden, which is a fun place for families and kids to play in the water. Then we have the Heartland Harvest Garden, which is an edible landscape. All of this is connected through our Marlese Gourley Island Garden. There's a lot to see, and there's a lot of space, right? Which has actually worked in our favor with the pandemic. We've seen a lot of people coming out here because they want to be outside and they want to feel safe.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sounds like a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. You're a prairie garden with these wonderful, wonderful, expansive views. Yet you're so assessable to this urban place that we live in. What inspired the gardens?

Tabitha Schmidt:

It's an interesting history and story. George and Hilda Powell are the founders of the Garden. George was very active in the Kansas City community with the building of the airport, very important in the development of Kansas City. One of the things that he said and believed was that every great city should have a great botanical garden. So Powell was actually a family farm for the Powell family. So interestingly, the grandsons of George and Hilda are still very active with the gardens today, and they remember playing out here, just being on a farm. Then the family decided to donate it to The Boy Scouts. So it became a Boy Scout camp for many years. It's interesting how many people I meet that say, "I went out there to camp," that they have these memories of being here.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Then it came back to the Powell family from the Boy Scouts, and that's when they started looking at the land and really trying to figure out what they should do with it. So they did a study and it was decided that a botanical garden was what it would become. It was incorporated in 1988. It's been around for well over 30 years now.

Kelly Scanlon:

How has the focus of the garden shifted during that 30 to 33-year time period?

Tabitha Schmidt:

The first 30 years were really about building the gardens, right? It was kind of build one garden and one building at a time. There was a 20-year span of a lot of growth in both the horticulture garden side and in the building side. I always think people who garden understand that gardens are a lot of work, right? Even if you just have a small vegetable garden or flower garden, or whatever, you have to stay on top of them.

Kelly Scanlon:

Definitely.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So the gardens has really grown. As I mentioned earlier, it's 175 acres open to the public, including trails and green spaces, gardens, buildings, roads, the whole works. What happens to gardens as you go from the development phase, right, and that was that first 30 years into maturity. So we've entered then this maturity phase where we have this garden, and what we're really doing now is we're moving from maturity to establishment. We are really looking at the gardens we have, the buildings we have, the needs of those spaces. What are we planting? Then really, we've shifted from building into what I call activation.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So the goal now is, we have all this amazing, beautiful space and it's really, what are we going to do here to really engage the community and grow our reach? So that's where our festivals, our exhibitions, our education classes, our rental program, all of that comes into play. Interestingly, we just entered into a master planning initiative with a firm called Design Workshop, who works with many master plans and botanical gardens. We're working with them to look at the entire property and our programming holistically, really looking at that sustainable business model.

Tabitha Schmidt:

What should we be doing with the property? How do we leverage our assets? As I mentioned, we have a 970 acre footprint, and there's a great deal of land that could be used for some pretty exciting projects. The family of today, the visitor of today, expects very different things, right? You must have technology, even in a garden. While many people don't want that, most people do, especially the younger generations. We're just evaluating everything. We're looking at accessibility, how people move through the garden, sitting, shade, just all of it, so that we really can look at the next 25 to 30 years and what the garden needs to do to meet the needs of the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

I find it very interesting that you talk about technology and that even in a garden, especially among the younger groups that come through that that is an expectation. But it just strikes me, so many people would go to a garden to escape that technology, and the hustle and bustle of our world. So talk to us a little bit about how technology can be used in an environment like this, and yet maintain that quietness and that solitude that so many people seek in a garden.

Tabitha Schmidt:

That's a great question. I think that the botanical garden world is still wrestling with, in some ways. The museum world already wrestled with it and came out on the other side with the belief that you have to be more activated and more technology driven. So the garden should meet people where they are. So it is our job to think of all the ways people want to interact with the garden and offer them a menu of sorts. So for those people who really do want a quiet meditative experience, we have plenty of that out here. But for those who say they want to learn, right? Well, technology is the perfect platform.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Then there's a million of them out there to learn more about plants. So for example, we have a new software database, a new collections database, thanks to the Louette Accounting Foundation. Where we now are using what's called IrisBG, was designed for botanical gardens and we're putting all of our plant collection in this database. Well, what's so great about this database is it's a cloud-based platform that will allow us to share our plant collection with the world. It also has mapping capabilities. Once it's done, you'll be able to open this app and say, "I want to see that Azalea or that particular Iris," and it will tell you exactly where to find it in the garden.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Then it will give you information about it. So that's one way that we're using it. The other thing, and I think if you think about what the pandemic has done, our education coordinator last year really had to flip from in-person classes or is definitely with schools, to doing more digital content through the internet. So those are just two obvious ways that we're seeing. But we have this digital exhibit here, and it's very subdued. It's on these little QR code stands throughout the garden. You can click on these QR codes, it's called Press Play. It's an artist exhibit, but digitally done.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So there might be a poet or a dance, or a musician, and all of these artists came in and responded to the garden. So you can just go through, click, listen, watch or whatever, and engage in a multimedia sort of approach. So those are just some of the ways that we're looking at it.

Kelly Scanlon:

I also find it interesting that you have this potential for this high tech, and yet you also have a program called Goats On The Go. So just having the goats there eating some of the invasive species, as I understand it.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So we want to try to do as many of the more sustainable best practices out there into managing land, right? Even if you have a tiny little lawn, you're always managing that green space, right? You're trying to control the weeds or you're trying to keep it pretty, or whatever you're doing. Well, we deal with that. We just deal with it on a much larger scale, in a lot more diversity, in the species that we're managing out here. One of our strategic plan goals is really developing a sustainable garden that supports excellence in display, education and conservation, and that's where the goats come in.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So we rent the goats from a company called Goats On The Go, and last year was our second year. We move them around with an electric fence throughout the property, and they eat the bad stuff and leave the good stuff. So they clear it out. Interesting, it's the baby goats that are the best. So they're just so stinking cute. They are so-

Kelly Scanlon:

They are, Oh, don't get me started on baby goats.

Tabitha Schmidt:

I know, right? They can do what comes naturally to them. What would take us an enormous amount of manpower, right, and labor, but these goats just do it instinctively. So that's just one of the many ways. We're working on more native plants. We have some really great milkweed collection and pollinators are huge for us, creating this healthy ecosystems and goats help do that. They help bring back the beneficial bugs and the beneficial plants. So it's been fun watching it, and it is making a big impact. It really is.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned the events that you're in a phase where you're trying to connect more with the community, attract more visitors, and one of those is through the events. For example, just recently, during the holidays, you held your Festival of Lights. What are some of the events and why are they popular?

Tabitha Schmidt:

Powell Gardens, last year in October, completed a brand new front entrance monument. So when you come to Powell now, you can't miss us. There is a giant Powell Gardens, Kansas City's Botanical Gardens sign, big raised beds, a beautiful archway that now houses the Sheaves of Wheat, sculpture that used to be on the Kansas City Board of Trade. Interestingly, we didn't have a huge presence for the first 30 plus years, and now we do. So you cannot drive past us when you come to these festivals and events. So the festivals, we are outside the city, right? So we're a rural garden outside an urban area.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So there's really two things that the gardens has always struggled with that they couldn't control, and that is location, right? You cannot build a Powell Gardens in Kansas City. You cannot have the same amount of land or footprint. Land is just very different in an urban environment.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Then, of course, whether. Those two things, we have to figure out how to work with, right? Because they're going to do what they do because of the nature of what they are. So when we built our strategic plan in 2019, we really were looking at what was working for the garden, and Festival of Butterflies was working. Festival of Butterflies has been around for, I think this is our 24th year this year, and it has been a tradition and a family staple. Last year we had about, I think, 15,000 people in a 16-day period, come through and see the exotic butterflies and participate in the festival. So we've taken that model that extended multiple-week model, and we built Festival of Lights, is the next one we built.

Tabitha Schmidt:

This past year was our fourth annual, and I am happy to report we had over 60,000 visitors. Now grounded, everybody wanted to do safe holiday activity, but we also changed our marketing program and just a confluence of things really made a difference. We light up at Festival of Lights, 25 acres.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh my!

Tabitha Schmidt:

When Festival of Lights was created in 2017, it's one of the first earned income strategies that I initiated. That was created to drive attendance in the winter months, which most people don't think of us, gardens. It's worked for many gardens and it was designed to be botanical in its inspiration and bring the bones of the garden to life at night, and it has absolutely worked. Obviously with those kinds of numbers, is our sort of showstopper of the year. This year, we are launching Bloom Fest, Play Outside, which is our spring festival.

Tabitha Schmidt:

This festival highlights all of the spring blooms in the garden. We have 100,000 daffodils that bloom throughout. It depends four to six weeks, depending on how spring is acting. Our Iris collection, our magnolias, our dogwoods, our redbuds. Spring is really a magical time in the horticulture aspects of the garden. Then we activate Bloom Fest, where we're working on some art components and partnerships, and events. So we're working on a vendor fair. We have a family weekend, where we do family programming. Then we have a big kind of mother's day, it ends on Mother's Day. So that's event-driven, but very much about the spring at the garden.

Tabitha Schmidt:

We will also be launching harvest days, gather in the garden, this fall, which is a five-week activation strategy to create these outdoor rooms and activities around all things fall. Each of these festivals, including Festival of Butterflies, will really focus on food, beverage and retail, events and activities that drive the themes home, that Midwest spirit of place that I mentioned earlier. The four seasons are so Midwest.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned some partnerships with the art community. You also have other partnerships that people may not be aware of. One of those is, you found out back in September, you had some really big news that Powell Gardens was gifted a native prairie. It's actually not part of your current acreage, it's East of Sedalia. So tell us about that.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Well, okay. [Ulla Gaisten 00:15:40] is the one who gifted it to Powell Gardens. Eric Tschanz, my predecessor and owner were very close and his wife, Debbie. When she passed away, she left the native prairie to Powell Gardens. So yes, we received it in September of 2019. It is a 40 acre native prairie East of Sedalia. A native prairie, it's so hard to describe. They're rare. The dirt's not been turned. It's not been farmed or-

Kelly Scanlon:

Natural state.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Yes, exactly. So we went out to see the prairie soon after we received it in the fall. I grew up in a rural farm community, and we had nothing like this. I can tell you that. It's just the forbs, the flowers, the bees, the butterflies, the habitat that a native prairie encourages is just tremendous. We do have staff taking care of it and managing it, because you have to make sure that... Remember I was talking about those invasive species, right? You got to keep them out of there, keep it healthy. We're starting to have conversations about how that native prairie can benefit the community educational activities.

Tabitha Schmidt:

The Missouri Prairie Foundation, Deep Roots, there's a whole lot of native plant and prairie organizations, and supporters in the area. So we're just now starting to think about what kind of program that we can establish using it. Because what's interesting is Powell Gardens, I call the mothership, right? The home-based [inaudible 00:17:16] garden. We have lots of prairies. We have some sort of reconstituted. We have these areas that are very much overtaken by invasive species that need attention. Then we have some other healthier prairies and meadows at the garden.

Tabitha Schmidt:

One of the things that I see about this is we literally have physical representations of probably what most people out there might be experiencing with their own property, right? We might have one that's in pretty good condition and they might be able to identify with that. But someone else may one that's not in good condition, and we have one like that. Then there is this, as bad as perfect as you can get, right? We can't get perfect, but it's about as perfect. So when you think about people learning by seeing and doing, this gives us that opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

Another relationship that you have outside of your normal daily endeavors, it's the ginkgo trees that you have there. If you could tell us about the ginkgo trees, because it really does kind of wrap everything up. Although the Powell Gardens is such a precious gem really for the Kansas City area, it does have global significance. I think this story brings it all together.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Clifton Harry Truman's grandson was gifted ginkgo seeds from what's called the Green Legacy Hiroshima Project. This is a worldwide initiative that safeguards and spreads the seeds and saplings from the A-bomb survivor trees, Hiroshima. It's a message of peace, is what it is. So when those seeds were gifted, the Truman Library, they needed someone to care for them and grow them. So Powell Gardens was entrusted with them. So we've been caring for and growing them since they were gifted. We are working with the Truman Library to plant them. We hope in 2022, through some sort of ceremony, and what they symbolize is so important.

Tabitha Schmidt:

So we have been very honored to be the caretakers, I guess, is the right way to put it for these very special trees that will be planted in Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

When does your new season began? I'm sure you probably have some adjustments and hours because of the pandemic. So talk to us about, if you want to go visit, what do you need to do? What do you need to be aware of?

Tabitha Schmidt:

COVID has hit everyone in financial ways and other ways. So one of the ways that we're just adjusting this next year with our resources is to change our hours a bit. So we will be having Member March. So our membership base will be given special privileges in the month of March in different events and opportunities. We're still finishing up the schedule. But if you are a member or want to become a member, that is one of a million benefits that you can have in March, but then throughout the year. We're going to open to the public April 1st, which is a month later than normal.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Again, just in response to the last year and the impacts that's had. Rather than being open seven days a week, we're going to be open Thursday through Sunday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. But within those four days, we'll be packing more of a punch. We're looking at more opportunities and events. The other thing I want to leave the audience with is, we are also opening a new exhibition this year called Fun and Games, Play in the Gardens. It will open after Mother's Day, and it's a 13 stop family-oriented activation of new place structures, games on the trail, ice by game from the silo, a pirate ship play structure, a fairy garden. That's just a few.

Tabitha Schmidt:

We have a nine-hole mini disc golf course on one of our green spaces. It's permanently in the garden, but will be highlighted through the summer with the Festival of Butterflies. Really, our primary focus is families. This is allowing our families to do more in the garden, to play more in the garden. So I encourage everyone to come out and play.

Kelly Scanlon:

Certainly a lot of things going on out there at Powell Gardens. There's something for everybody, and I'm assuming that you can find all this information out on your website at powellgardens.org.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Absolutely. I highly recommend following us on Facebook and Instagram if you are social media people, because we have a strong team that's always posting. If you want to know what's going on here, that's the quickest way to find out.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tabitha, thank you so much for all of the work that you're doing here in Kansas City, to bring this special experience to all of us. Really appreciate it.

Tabitha Schmidt:

Thank you, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Tabitha Schmidt for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. One of the perks of living in Kansas City is the ability to get just about anywhere quickly. Although we can enjoy the urban amenities of a big city, we can also get back to nature easily. Our gardens is one of those area gems that allows us to do just that. Thanks to Forward Thinking Leadership, the gardens have evolved to integrate technology, events and educational opportunities that enhance the experience, and keep the garden sustainable without sacrificing the solitude and beauty so many visitors enjoy.

Joe Close:

This spring, as you're looking for a reason to get outdoors, don't forget about Powell Gardens. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.