By Molly Davis and M. Scott Smith
On April 26, 2014, amid spring flowers and bright sunshine, Mayor Jim Gray joined President Eli Capilouto to sustain and extend one of Lexington's brightest examples of town and gown collaboration.
That Arbor Day signing rededicated our community to The Arboretum by adding decades to the term of the agreement, by expanding the initial 50-acre plot to encompass today's 100 acres of landscape, and, perhaps most significantly, restating the commitment to the University of Kentucky and Lexington Fayette Urban County Government partnership.
On July 29, the mayor and president will again join together to officially open the new shared use path in The Arboretum Woods. This new path, funded by UK, provides a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly connection from University Court through The Arboretum Woods and ends at the intersection of Shady Lane and Wildwood Avenue.
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What is the connection between these two events and why are they worthy of note? The common thread is The Arboretum, born in 1986 on land long ago acquired by the College of Agriculture as a research and teaching farm. To further the effort to build an arboretum, LFUCG provided capital funding for modest infrastructure. UK contributed the land and continuing administrative and technical support.
Yet there was no provision for an operating budget.
The Arboretum looks to 2016 to celebrate its 25th anniversary in recognition of its official opening in 1991. To the present day, grassroots community support has nourished the growth and development of The Arboretum. Hundreds of volunteers give both labor and money generously, and with time and a visionary design, a pasture became a true botanical garden and arboretum.
The Arboretum now stands with Keeneland and the Kentucky Horse Park among those places that we all take our out-of-town guests and where visitors from across the nation discover the beauty and unique character of Lexington. The Arboretum also is in the hearts of so many in our community as a memorial place.
In some ways, The Arboretum is now challenged by its own success. What was once locally known mostly as an exercise path, now includes a notable botanical collection and a first rate outreach and education program. In increasing numbers, faculty and their students are integrating The Arboretum into their classes and academic experience — if they can find a parking spot when competing with joggers on a pretty day.
At first led and directed almost solely by skilled volunteers, The Arboretum now costs more than half a million dollars per year to maintain and operate. This amount, however, pales in comparison to what is truly needed to operate programs, retain highly-qualified staff and maintain our 100 acres at the level its many visitors have come to expect.
Many similar places around the country operate on a multi-million dollar endowment. Others levy significant entry or usage fees on all visitors. A fraction of arboreta and botanical gardens are fully and generously funded in the budgets of local, state or federal public agencies. Our Arboretum grew up with none of these funding models.
The Arboretum survives on a none-too-predictable mix of services by UK Physical Plant; a recent commitment of stable funding for a skeleton technical/educational staff by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment; grants, including some year to year support from LFUCG, and gifts by individuals.
Can The Arboretum be sustained in such a way? Can it remain equally valued and accessible to so many diverse community interests: education, passive recreation, environmental quality, horticultural and landscape aesthetics, memorials, botanical science and resources?
In the long term we can only answer "yes" if we build a broader, more stable base of operating funding.
Congratulations and compliments to Gray and Capilouto for completing an essential next step toward sustaining a treasured community asset, and for joining forces to celebrate the new shared use path. May The Arboretum continue to be a place for all to enjoy, visit and support.