BUFFALO NEWS: July 29, 2011
Garden Walk draws big, green thumbs-up
Praises heaped as festival flowers
By Phil Fairbanks
News Staff Reporter
Published:July 29, 2011
Atlantic magazine's website called it the "best event of its kind."
Martha Stewart Living suggested the host city may be the "epicenter of American horticulture."
And a gushing San Francisco Chronicle writer said, "It's more than a tour, it's a must-see event."
The notion that Buffalo and beauty go hand in hand may strike the uninitiated as heresy, but thanks to more than 340 volunteers, all of them avid amateur gardeners, that's the buzz being generated by this weekend's Garden Walk Buffalo.
"Buffalo has turned into the big time," said Richard Benfield, a professor at Central Connecticut State University and an expert on garden tourism. "At the end of the day, 50,000 people are coming to Buffalo to see your gardens."
Benfield considers Buffalo's garden walk the largest event of its kind in terms of gardens and visitors. The two-day event, which is free, will feature more than 340 urban gardens, many of them in historic neighborhoods. Even more flattering, perhaps, is the fact that other cities are imitating us.
"I really want people to see Buffalo because it's so inspiring," said Janet Kious, founder of GardenWalk Cleveland, which had its inaugural event last month. Kious attended last year's garden walk and came away motivated to do something similar in Cleveland. She will return this weekend with a busload of volunteers eager to learn from what is becoming one of the premier garden festivals in the nation.
What they'll find is a city eager to shed its tarnished image by displaying one of its true passions and inviting the world to come see it.
"I probably had 500 people last year," said Regina O'Connor, who at 93 is still happy to greet visitors at her home on Park Street. "I tried to keep track, but it was a steady stream of people. And they came from all over, from Toronto, and from Hamilton."
On O'Connor's West Side street, the garden walk has become a competition of sorts among neighbors eager to outdo each other.
And to a person, they enjoy the genuine shock on the faces of out-of-towners, many of them visiting Buffalo for the first time.
"They're surprised because of our cold weather and horrible winters," said Nancy Fix of Park Street.
After 12 years of greeting visitors, there's no doubt in Fix's mind that the garden walk is changing Buffalo's Rust Belt image, even if it's just one person at a time.
"It really must have an impact," she said while putting the finishing touches on her front yard. "I think all the hard work we do pays off."
Michael Rooney's home on Orton Place has hosted visitors from as far away as Greece, England and Argentina. And he loves the idea that Buffalo's amateur horticulturalists are single-handedly altering the city's reputation.
"It's always surprising when a stereotype is shattered," Rooney said. "And it's something you really want to share with people."
Organizers are quick to note that Buffalo's gardeners are almost as big a draw as their gardens. It's not uncommon to hear tales of homeowners and visitors exchanging stories of their successes and, yes, failures.
"Our gardeners are freakishly friendly," said Jim Charlier, president of the garden walk. "Only Buffalonians would invite thousands of people into their backyards."
Charlier's suggestion that "thousands" will traipse through anyone's backyard sounds fantastical, almost too hard to believe.
But John Hochadel will tell you it's true. He had 5,000 visitors at his home on Union Place last year.
"We get lots of repeats," he said of the people who come year after year. "It's not unusual for me to look down the street and see hundreds of people."
Hochadel, vice president of the garden walk committee, enjoys talking to out-of-towners and suburbanites who come away with a far different view of the city. He also knows the event's impact is more than just image-related.
And nowhere is that more noticeable than at Buffalo's restaurants and hotels, many of them booked solid this weekend. Representatives of the Adam's Mark downtown and Holiday Inn on Delaware Avenue confirmed their rooms are sold out.
A recent study by Benfield estimated the garden walk's direct economic impact at about $3.4 million or, on average, about $68 for every one of the 50,000 people attending the two-day event. Not bad when you consider the event is free and financed solely by contributions from its 30 sponsors.
"It just blows my mind that we're able to do this," Charlier said of the low-cost event. "The return on the dollar is amazing."
Even more surprising is the number of visitors from outside the region. Organizers conducted a ZIP code survey last year and found 24 percent came from outside Erie and Niagara counties.
Benfield, author of the book "Garden Tourism," thinks his attendance numbers are conservative because not everyone who tours Buffalo's gardens picks up a map, the basis for his 50,000-plus estimate.
He also thinks the event's impact extends beyond dollars and cents and may, over time, prove to be one of the best vehicles for improving Buffalo's gloomy image.
"I may be biased, but I think it may be the best thing you can do," he said. "You have all the elements you want in an event. It's inherently beautiful, and it's as visible and believeable as you can get."
O'Connor feels the same way and is proud to take part in an event that may be altering the "doom and gloom" about Buffalo espoused by people she meets while visiting family members across the country.
After five years as a garden walk participant, she knows firsthand the conversion that often takes place when noncity folks see her gardens for the first time.
"There's tremendous satisfaction," she said of the reactions she gets from visitors. "I also enjoy talking to the people. It's fun, and they really appreciate the work you've done."