Business

Callaway Gardens closing Sibley Horticultural Center, with Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden being relocated

TONY ADAMS

tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

The John A. Sibley Horticultural Center at Callaway Gardens, open since 1984, will be closed on Nov. 12.
The John A. Sibley Horticultural Center at Callaway Gardens, open since 1984, will be closed on Nov. 12.

Callaway Gardens, working to overcome the financial troubles it experienced from the Great Recession, has closed one of its attractions, with another one being shuttered in less than two weeks.

Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden was closed on Monday, apparently to be relocated, while the John A. Sibley Horticultural Center’s final day will be Nov. 12, Callaway Gardens marketing and public relations director Rachel Crumbley confirmed.

William “Bill” Doyle III, who was hired as president and chief executive officer in late April, said in a statement Friday that he is “excited to start on changes that will ensure this place of serenity, inspiration, and discovery is available for future generations as intended by our founders.”

Doyle said the decision was made to close Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden after the current growing season, with management moving forward with a “long talked about relocation elsewhere” of the attraction. Where that will be and the size of the garden have yet to be determined, he said.

The vegetable garden was located on nearly eight acres of land. Doyle said that site is now being “studied further” as a location for a golf clubhouse or more hotel rooms, or possibly both.

Callaway Gardens is home to two golf courses. It also operates the 241-room Mountain Creek Inn just outside its gates, along with cottages, villas and mountain homes. Another hotel nearby, with which the resort is not affiliated and is called The Lodge and Spa at Callaway Gardens, has 149 rooms and suites.

“The closure of the Sibley Horticultural Center is a measure that allows us to focus on a better gardens experience and put the polish on another jewel, the Day Butterfly Center,” Doyle said of work to enhance the grounds around the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, which opened in 1988. “That work is already under way, with measurable progress by mid- to late-November. Guests should mark their calendars to visit this spring to see the new, colorful displays.”

Doyle did not mention possible plans for the Sibley Center property.

“Quite simply, these small steps now are significant in contributing to our future,” he said.

Crumbley said Callaway Gardens had a “busy” summer in terms of visitation and is doing “great.” She did not know how many people were stopping by the Sibley Center or the vegetable garden.

Both of the shuttered venues have long histories at Callaway Gardens, which was founded out of farm and forest lands in 1952 by Cason J. and Virginia Hand Callaway.

Click here for a timeline of events in the history of Callaway Gardens.

The Sibley Center, dedicated in March 1984, is named in honor of John A. Sibley, the late Georgia banker, attorney, conservation advocate and friend of the Callaway family. He also was a trustee on the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation — the nonprofit organization that oversees the gardens — from 1964 until his death in 1986.

Facts about the center, located on five acres and built with private donations, include its construction using 300 tons of Tennessee fieldstone; the use of more than 7,000 glass blocks and 26 folding doors, each 24 feet tall and weighing 1,600 pounds; and a 22-foot waterfall with 350 gallons of water cascading downward into a pool each minute.

The facility, at one time marketed by Callaway Gardens as “one of the most advanced garden/greenhouse complexes in the world,” is about 22,000 square feet, with an additional 30,000 square feet of greenhouse production space. The complex, with floral and plant displays inside and out, underwent a $3.5 million renovation in 2003.

Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden goes back even further in time, with work on it beginning in 1960, making it the final project started by Cason Callaway before his death in 1961. The garden was completed and dedicated in 1962. The goal was to make it a “scientific, educational and practical applications” attraction for visitors.

Located on 7.5 acres, with three large terraces in a semicircular design, the gardens had the capacity for producing more than 400 varieties of crops. That included vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.

If it was a Southern or regional favorite, the produce could be found there. It became a hit in the mid-1980s when the Boston-based public broadcasting TV station WBGH launched a program called, “The Victory Garden,” using Callaway as a home demonstration garden. The program ran for nearly two decades.

Both the Sibley Center and Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden also were open for special events, including private occasions such as weddings. Crumbley said there are plenty of other sites in Callaway Gardens for such gatherings.

“The Discovery Center has become a real popular place to have them. They can have it out on the bridge; they can have it indoors,” she said. “Of course, the chapel is a popular place to have the wedding and then go to one of the facilities for the reception, like the Discovery Center or one of the ballrooms.”

All of the current moves at Callaway Gardens come amid a backdrop of financial problems that pushed the tourist destination to the brink of insolvency about five years ago. With Edward Callaway at the helm as chief executive officer, about 7,000 of the gardens’ 13,000 acres were sold to put it on stable ground, cutting its debt of $44 million to a more manageable $7 million.

The recovery has included trying a variety of things, including a string of concerts and outdoor adventure fun such as zip lining. Those go along with its traditional attractions that include Robin Lake Beach, the Discovery Center, the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel, its Birds of Prey show, annual July Fourth and water-ski competitions, the Fantasy in Lights holiday show, and bursts of colorful azaleas by Mother Nature in the spring. And until now, it also had the Sibley Horticultural Center and Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden.

Succeeding Callaway as president and CEO of the 63-year-old nature preserve and resort, Doyle came here with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City. He was given the mission of putting the gardens on a path to recovery and, ultimately, sustained success.

“It’s inventing fun things to do in a beautiful setting,” Edward Callaway said in April of Doyle’s basic job requirement. “For a long time we’ve had a beautiful setting, but the fun stuff to do while you’re there isn’t developed as much as it needs to be.”

The news of the Sibley Center’s demise is a concern for those living in Pine Mountain and doing business there. Homeowners in a residential subdivision inside Callaway Gardens, called Longleaf, were told of the facility’s closing earlier this week.

Pine Mountain businessman Ernest Koone, who operates Garden Delights, a garden center not far from Callaway’s beach entrance, acknowledged the fate of the two longtime attractions were disconcerting.

“Of course, we depend on people coming to Callaway to look at flowers, really, for a good bit of our business,” he said. “To our economy up here, no matter what, restaurant or gas station or whatever, Callaway is pretty essential to our livelihoods.”

When the tourist attraction struggles, Koone said, so do those in the community around it. He recalls the relative heyday in the 1990s. Callaway is situated in Harris County, about midway between Columbus and the southern portion of Atlanta.

“It was just like a three-ring circus going on,” he said of the plentiful people eating and shopping in the area, which includes Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park. “We saw basically after 9/11, everything started slowing and it culminated in 2007 for us. But we do feel like it’s come back some.”

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