Botanical garden director resigns amid $10 million capital campaign

The Columbus Botanical Garden is located on 23 acres off Weems Road. The property, dedicated in 2004, is adjacent to the sprawling Columbus Park Crossing hub on the city’s north side. --
The Columbus Botanical Garden is located on 23 acres off Weems Road. The property, dedicated in 2004, is adjacent to the sprawling Columbus Park Crossing hub on the city’s north side. -- Image from Columbus Botanical Garden on Facebook

The Columbus Botanical Garden, which launched a $10 million capital campaign for improvements in late 2017, is now embarking on the search for a new executive director following the resignation of its previous one.

Matt Whiddon, who had overseen the 23-acre garden at 3603 Weems Road in north Columbus since March 2014, submitted his resignation to the nonprofit organization’s board of directors last week. The resignation letter by Whiddon apparently asked for a three-month notice until his departure, but the board declined the offer.

Reached Monday, Whiddon did not want to comment on specifics of his sudden departure. He is now focusing on his landscaping business, Columbus in Color, which he started in 2000.

“I think that we had a great four years that I was there, and we really transitioned the garden ... I feel like we really helped to poise the garden for a bright future,” said Whiddon, noting a 10-year master plan has been developed for Columbus Botanical Garden, which was dedicated in 2004 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.

“We’ve been working to achieve the goals that came up as a result of that master plan,” Whiddon said. “There’s a new vegetable garden, a new rose garden, an expanded camellia garden. I’m certainly proud of what we have done and only wish the garden the best of success going forward.”

With Whiddon’s exit, Bruce Howard, president of the garden’s board of directors, has taken on the role of interim executive director, while Columbus resident and retired businessman Sam Wellborn, president-elect, has become interim president of the board.

Wellborn said there was no acrimony between Whiddon and the garden’s board leadership leading up to his resignation. Whiddon had been managing both the gardens job and his landscape business at the same time, Wellborn said, noting he had done a good job during the time he was executive director.

“He did not have to resign. Nobody asked him to resign. It was his own choosing,” Wellborn said. “He might have wanted to stay there longer than we approved. But we felt like if he was leaving for sure, then we needed to get on with finding his successor.”

To that end, a search committee is now being formed from the garden’s board members, with it expected to be finalized by the end of this week, Wellborn said. Then a regional search for a new director will get under way, although no timeframe has been laid out for that to be accomplished, he said. It could take two or three months to find the “right person” for the job.

Wellborn also is serving as chairman of the $10 million capital campaign for Columbus Botanical Garden, which will run for two years through 2019. He said the fund raising is going “extremely well” thus far, and that the ultimate goal is to turn the garden into an “incredible new amenity and attraction” for the city. Plans include creating a new children’s garden on the property.

“We go by the slogan, ‘Great cities have great gardens.’ Well, Columbus doesn’t have a great garden, but we’re going to create a great garden,” Wellborn said. “Until we embarked on this capital campaign, we hadn’t been able to do too much because of limited funds. But now we’re going to have the money to do the things in our long-term plan to get it done.”

Both Whiddon and Wellborn said the current 10,000 visitors each year to Columbus Botanical Garden is simply too low of a number, and that the aim is to reach 40,000 visitors as quickly as possible. Many Columbus-area residents don’t event know that it exists, they acknowledged.

The garden, which is free, but “suggests” a $2 per person donation from visitors, is typically used for special events to include weddings, horticultural seminars and community education, as well as a setting for photographs.

Its stated mission is: “To preserve a portion of the rapidly diminishing open space in Columbus and to provide the public with a unique educational facility that is based on environmental awareness, horticulture, historic preservation and agricultural values. This facility shall strive to inspire and leave a lasting impression on those who visit.”

Click here for Columbus Botanical Garden on Facebook.