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Botanica's new event center an answer to growing wedding business

By Annie Calovich

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) Any day now, visitors to Botanica will be able to wander past months of lobby construction and cross a tiled koi-stream threshold into the new event center.

The center, which has been under construction just inside the parking-lot entrance, is Botanica's answer to a growing wedding business and its latest attempt to become self-sufficient.

The center includes an entry hall containing the stained-glass dome that used to be in the old Looking Glass restaurant downtown. The hall leads into the event center itself, whose centerpiece vaulted window is filled with the view of a giant hackberry tree outside. In front of that stone-framed window, Botanica staff expect many people to get married.

"It's really organic but it gives you a big feeling," Botanica's director Marty Miller said of the center, which will hold 299 people in chairs or 240 at tables. The inspiration for it came from the wood-and-glass Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark.

"It's not a church," Miller said of the vaulted space with its pendant lights, "but it can give that feeling, particularly when you have something spiritual like a wedding. It has that ambience."

Botanica is awaiting the final permit for the center to open, and the first events will happen in June. It's already being booked for Christmas parties. But the weddings -- which Miller expects to make up the majority of the events -- won't start happening there in earnest until the landscaping outside is done.

The landscaping will take the form of a Chinese garden, being designed with the help of local Chinese residents and with the consultation of Wichita's sister city in China, Kaifeng.

The tiled threshold that leads out of the "old" Botanica into the new area gives the first clue to the coming Chinese garden, as will a replica of a Ming-dynasty scroll from Kaifeng depicting the life cycle of the lotus that will cover the hallway walls for 60 feet.

"You enter and you're going to start thinking 'Chinese,' " Miller said. A gift of $1 million from an anonymous donor will build the Chinese garden, though more money is needed for the garden's artwork. Ground-breaking for the Chinese garden will be at 1 p.m. May 28 and will be open to the public. The garden is expected to be completed by early spring 2015.

Botanica hosts more than 200 weddings a year -- bringing in about 27 percent of its revenue -- but it wasn't built with such rentals in mind.

The event center has been. It includes a bride's room, a much smaller groom's room (right by an exit door), and a catering kitchen with access to the outdoors, so that dual events can be held both inside and outside.

Still to be finished as part of the center are a snack bar and new library. The event center sits where Botanica's offices used to be housed. Those offices are moving to where the old library used to be.

Miller is thrilled with the event center, which he says "is actually a metal building with a very small budget." He thinks the building offers a lot of bang for the buck; while it was built for about $1.2 million, Miller considers the value to be closer to $3 million.

The money for the expansion of Botanica came from the parks section of the city's capital-improvement program.

"It's another step toward Botanica becoming self-sufficient," Miller said.

Earlier this week, Botanica announced another new feature that is in the works for the gardens: the restoration of the Joyland merry-go-round, to be housed near the Downing Children's Garden. Miller said that since the announcement, his phone has been ringing off the hook. He said he has received a commitment of $10,000 for the project from one donor, an offer from a local company to supply the lubricants to bring the merry-go-round up to speed and keep it working, and an offer from a local woman to refurbish the metal parts.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle