What if all parties with a common interest got together to envision a future that would benefit them all? What if everyone – powerful and meek, organizations and individuals, businesses and not-for-profits – met at the same table to describe their dreams and how to achieve them? And what if all the arguments were positive? It sounds like an idealized post-election world. Not easy.

While such a forum may be unlikely in politics, I have just witnessed and participated in a rare and inspiring model – a communitywide conversation about the future of BuffaloNiagara garden tourism and the National Garden Festival, of which I am executive director. The stakeholders were all there, or nearly so: about 80 impassioned people – from CEOs to everyday gardeners – with views on how to claim an even bigger slice of the garden tourism pie. And then how the whole region could benefit: economic growth, neighborhood improvement and regional quality of life.

Who came to the table

Visit Buffalo Niagara called for this forum Nov. 5, with the belief that gardening is a win-win tool for both tourism and the good of the region. Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, VBN director, reported a study that shows: “Gardening is the common denominator linking other cultural tourism – specifically art and architecture.” We know, for instance, that more people across the U.S. visit gardens (botanical gardens, public gardens or garden tours) than Disney World and Disneyland combined (more than 45 million).

Already the National Garden Festival – springing from the phenomenon of Garden Walk Buffalo – is the largest event of its kind in the country.

To have a meaningful talk during this forum, the leaders assigned seats, separating like-minded associates. CEOs talked to gardeners, landscape pros to tourism experts. Attendance included: Garden Walk Buffalo board members and gardeners, Master Gardeners, Open Garden or bus tour gardeners, garden walk or tour hosts from many towns, landscapers, garden club members, plant society representatives, CEOs, directors or board members from the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, WNY Nursery & Landscape Association, Buffalo in Bloom, Buffalo Green Fund, Buffalo Citybration, Keep America Beautiful, Buffalo RiverKeepers, WNY Land Conservancy, Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, the Darwin Martin House Complex and marketing, tourism or law firms, a City of Buffalo representative and an Erie County legislator.

Bloggers and media were there. Project leaders also participated, who are currently planning National Garden Events: Garden Art Sale, Garden Walks/Tours, Motor coach Tours, Open Gardens, Front Yard Makeover/Neighborhood improvement and educational programs.

It was indeed a revelation: that so many interested groups and effective individuals cared deeply enough to give up five hours on a Monday afternoon in November to talk about gardening tourism. And what a conversation it was ...

Ideas, wishes and dreams

A summary of over four hours of concentrated Q&A, interviews, visions and opinions is daunting (more at blogger Jim Charlier’s but here’s a sample:

Q: Imagine the Buffalo region’s National Garden Festival in 2017. What’s going on? What do you see? (This particular date was chosen because in 2017 an international event called Flora Niagara will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors just North of our border – an obvious opportunity to link our garden attractions.) Ideas ran rampant, some enacted as skits to show us in 2017:

• National TV shows and personalities (Katie Couric, Martha Stewart, famous chefs) come to Buffalo to tell our story • New hotels and restaurants have sprung up; 500,000 garden tourists fill them all. • International Tour de Fleur brings bikers here for garden tour routes. • Plein Air art show brings international artists – shows, sales, seen in gardens on tours.

• National Garden Festival office on Elmwood Avenue gives easy access to annual NGF Calendar and Open Gardens Book, related garden tourism info, photo gallery/art sales.

• Member (green) armband is bought for summerlong entry to all walks, tours, events.

• Trolley tours for seniors to city and suburban gardens, weekdays.

• Restaurant packages, wine tastings, concerts coordinated with festival tours (whole region).

• Professional landscape firms doubled in number and size.

• Edible landscapes weekend, tours of food production, urban/community gardens.

• Night lighting tours, including landscaped and lighted grain elevators.

• Wheelbarrow art contest, like “Herd about Buffalo.”

• Garden photography contest.

• Natural wonders tours, showcasing plants, animals, waterways.

Not far-fetched

Many themes were repeated, even when questions came from different angles (“What do you like best about the National Garden Festival?” “What have you liked in other tourism experiences?”) and many of the ideas were already familiar to National Garden Festival leaders, who hope to be able to do them.

In the near future, you will likely see:

• Themed tours or trails in the Open Gardens Book, such as native plants, edible landscaping, shade gardens, gardens with art and architectural interest etc.

• Collaboration with other summer events such as Citybration or attractions at other horticultural or art-related organizations.

• Partnerships between landscapers, volunteers, Olmsted Parks, etc. for public projects.

• New fundraisers, membership and sponsorship opportunities.

• Enhanced social and traditional media campaigns, and more cross-promotion, for regional and national visibility.

The conversation goes forward

This forum on garden tourism was made possible in part because the National Garden Festival received an Oishei Foundation grant to help with “capacity-building” (developing a sustainable, stable and funded organization). As the executive director of the National Garden Festival, I was moved by the participation and commitment to our garden tourism and garden festival future, and the participants’ ideas and passion to go forward.

Many expressed some variation on this theme: We have a world-class Botanical Garden, charming neighborhoods, architecture and art, historic Olmsted Parks, unsurpassable Garden Walk Buffalo, and now this festival of nearly 1,000 gardens. Of course the gardens tourists will keep coming! There is energy enough – and somehow we’ll find funding – to make it a great gardening 2013.

Then watch out for 2017; we have only just begun.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.