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Duke University garden’s curator venturing south to lead Columbus Botanical Garden

North Carolina native Stefan Bloodworth has been with the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., since 2002, serving as curator of its Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. As of Oct. 1, he will be leading the 36-acre Columbus Botanical Garden as its executive director. The renowned Duke Gardens encompasses 55 acres. --
North Carolina native Stefan Bloodworth has been with the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., since 2002, serving as curator of its Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. As of Oct. 1, he will be leading the 36-acre Columbus Botanical Garden as its executive director. The renowned Duke Gardens encompasses 55 acres. -- Image courtesy of Sarah P. Dukes Gardens

The Columbus Botanical Garden, poised for growth and in the middle of a $10 million capital campaign, has hired as its new executive director a senior curator from the renowned Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University.

Stefan Bloodworth, who will begin his job of designing and growing the 36-acre Columbus garden at 3603 Weems Road on Oct. 1, said that people in the community can expect him to “swing for the fences” in everything he tackles.

“I pretty much don’t do anything halfway,” he said Thursday in a phone interview. “What that basically means is for me to take on the role of executive director of a botanical garden, I have a feeling this botanical garden (in Columbus) can be a special thing.”

Bloodworth, 48, has been curator of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants since 2002. That garden is part of the main Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of the university. The 55-acre gardens, which will celebrate its 80th year in 2019, is rated one of the top botanical gardens in the U.S. and has consistently racked up honors. TripAdvisor travelers rank it the No. 1 place to visit in Durham, N.C., which is the home of Duke University.

The history of the Columbus Botanical Garden is much more humble and brief, with it being founded in 1999 after the property was donated by the children of George and Lillie Belle Kimbrough Adams of Columbus. The garden is located adjacent to Columbus Park Crossing, the major shopping hub developed on land also owned by the family.

A 10-year master plan has been created, with the capital fundraising campaign launching in late 2017 and expected to be completed by the end of 2019. About $5 million has been raised already, said Danita Gibson-Lloyd, development and marketing director for the Columbus garden.

“I think one of the things that was most intriguing and interesting to me about the Columbus Botanical Garden opportunity was what a young garden it is and what an interesting future I think it has,” said Bloodworth, who plans to draw on his experience at Duke and his connections within the regional and national botanical garden community to make creative and lasting improvements in Columbus and turn it into a leader among such nature-oriented attractions.

“I would love to try to swing for the fences every time we do a new project,” he said. “Can we do it incredibly creatively? Can we engage really creative designers when we bring them in to help us? And can we also do it sustainably? How can we make sure that whatever we do is good for the planet, that we’re making sure that we’re being responsible stewards as far as soil conservation, water conservation and electricity usage, things like that.”

The Columbus Botanical Garden said Bloodworth was the clear choice after an extensive national search by its board’s search committee. He will succeed interim executive director Bruce Howard, who took the reins after the resignation of director Matt Whiddon in January. Whiddon had led the nonprofit garden for four years.

A North Carolina native and graduate of North Carolina State University, Bloodworth said he learned of the job opening from Charlie Witzleben, a friend and past chair of the board of advisers at the Duke gardens, who also has worked with the Columbus Botanical Garden and its fundraising campaign. That connection led to an interview and two visits to Columbus for Bloodworth, who answered questions and asked his own about the local garden’s vision and goals.

“I was really pleased with all the answers that I got,” he said. “The vision that the staff and board have for the garden dovetails nicely with what I think it can become as well. At the end, it was pretty much a no-brainer for me.”

Duke Gardens Executive Director Bill LeFevre, in a statement on Bloodworth’s hiring, lauded him for having “the longest and most productive” tenure in the Blomquist Garden’s half-century history.

“Stefan created major additions to the Blomquist, including the Steve Church Endangered Species Garden and the Piedmont Prairie, recently awarded North Carolina’s prestigious Golden Leaf Award,” LeFevre said. “Most recently he forged a conservation partnership with the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance and the Atlanta Botanical Garden to conserve germplasm of the critically endangered Torreya taxifolia, or Florida nutmeg.”

Jenny Adams, the Columbus Botanical Garden board member who headed the search committee, said the group was seeking someone with expertise and enthusiasm as it combed through applications and resumes. They also wanted someone willing to collaborate with the board on matters.

“We hoped to find someone with both a passion for horticulture, as well as an understanding of the value that a botanical garden can bring to a community ... Stefan’s depth and breadth of experience shone above other applicants,” she said.

Bloodworth said he understands that botanical gardens are the primary portals through which many people across America experience the natural world. Thus, he said, a solid education component is needed for helping them explore how nature and horticulture works and the process of growing food.

The Columbus garden receives roughly 10,000 visits a year, which isn’t much for such an attraction in a city the size of Columbus. The new director said he is looking to generate enthusiasm within the community for the garden by creating a sense of place and giving people a reason to enjoy their garden.

“It sounds silly, but there’s a lot of botanical gardens out there where people are building the same types of gardens or structures and they look like they could be interchangeable, almost like McDonald’s,” Bloodworth said. “We don’t want to do that. We want to make sure that whatever we build and design at the Columbus Botanical Garden is unique to us and it’s formed by the unique cultural and natural history of this part of Georgia.”

As for where his family will call home when they relocate to Columbus, Bloodworth said he and wife, Erika, are excited about the Lakebottom Park and Midtown area of the city. That way they are close to downtown and its Historic District, while the new director can also take the bicycle rides that he loves.

“I’d love to be close to town and experience everything Columbus has to offer,” he said. “We currently live in the country and it’s beautiful and quiet, but we’re 30 minutes from town and both my wife and I work in town. I think we’d like to experience a little bit more what it’s like to live closer to the bone of a community and be closer to what’s going on.”