With Mark Runciman at the helm, the roots of Royal Botanical Gardens have grown deep
By Ted McIntyre
Mark Runciman concedes he's not much of a horticulturist. It's why he never initially considered the Executive Director/CEO post at Royal Botanical Gardens. Asked whether he relishes manicuring his own grounds at home, Runciman smiles sheepishly: "My wife does it all."
The East Hamilton native was an architectural technology graduate from Mohawk College, and served as project coordinator for Aiton Power, a Burlington contracting company that built power station components, as well as water treatment and sewage treatment facilities. When he spotted an ad in 1984 for a superintendent of buildings and equipment at the RBG, Runciman applied for the job— albeit, not without a kernel of curiosity.
"I looked at my wife and asked, 'Why do they need a full-time guy to look after the tea house?'" Runciman recalls. "My knowledge of RBG at that time was the Rock Garden, where most of our family visitors from England would go. I didn't know what else was here. I've been in awe of the place ever since. That our founder, Thomas Baker McQuesten, had the vision 80 years ago to protect these green spaces at a time of very aggressive development shows great foresight."
Now in his 28th year—he graduated to the executive director post in 2007 and assumed CEO duties two seasons later—Runciman bears the responsibility of ensuring that Mc- Queston's vision carries on for future generations. Although modelled after London's Kew Gardens, RBG serves as both a regional botanical tourism site and an environmental agency, with not only 300 acres of display gardens but 2,400 acres of environmentally sensitive lands and diverse ecosystems that connect the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario. In the face of worldwide environmental threats, RBG boasts an international reputation as a living laboratory for science, a connecting point for children in their early embrace of nature, a leader in sustainable gardening and a standard-bearer for ecological restoration and plant preservation.
BIZ: I guess if you can't have a green thumb, it helps to be surrounded by a lot of green fingers.
MR: We have some very talented staff and a tremendous team that includes many who want to see us succeed. This includes a good donor base and an active membership that have backed us for years. We're having a strawberry social this afternoon to thank the 350 volunteers we have working for us. They are in every bit of the operation and also deliver some fund-raising through the RBG Auxiliary annual plant sale. Many staff are here because of the cause. It's more than a job for them. It's because of them we've won so many awards—tourism destination of the year, environmentalist of the year.... But the biggest feat is how good the place looks with so few employees. We have eight head gardeners and eight gardeners on staff to look after those 300 acres of gardens, and a couple more staff to look after the environmentally sensitive sanctuary areas and nature trails.
Are you a self-sustaining business?
We have an operating budget of $12 million annually. We raise 50% on our own, which we're very proud of. We're all being challenged to raise that percentage due to available government money. And our core funders—the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, the City of Hamilton and Halton Region–have been great over the years.
What's the RBG's economic impact?
The last time the RBG's economic impact within the community was evaluated was in 2000. The annual gross domestic product it generated then was $9.2 million. Wages and salaries were another $6.6 million, and it was annually generating 236 jobs and $2.6 million in additional taxes. But we've done many enhancements since then, so these are probably conservative numbers.
How many visitors annually?
We have 8,000 family memberships, which accounts for over 16,000 total members around Hamilton/Halton and beyond. They get everything from restaurant and gift shop discounts to weekly jazz and classical music. As far as visitors go, there are two aspects. We have the gardens, which are gated. On average, paid attendance—people using our facilities, programs, camps—are around 220,000 a year. There's probably that same number who use our trails or skate on Cootes Paradise. So it's just under a halfmillion a year total. But we're having a great year this year. The winter chocolate exhibit gave us a great kickoff. It adds exposure and brings different people to the gardens who may not have known about us. Next year we have an interactive dinosaur exhibit—exploring the connection between dinosaurs and plants—called Battle of the Titans. The weather has also been great for visitors. A lot of people think we go into a cocoon after Labour Day, but we're a year-round attraction. We're bringing back ZimSculpt in the fall, a Zimbabwe stone sculpture exhibition we had here several years ago, which brings in a diverse group. Then we have a holiday traditions theme over the winter, and we're expanding our train exhibit, which is fun for kids of all ages. We also do a lot of corporate business with rentals, as well as weddings and school visits.
Attracting and educating youth is a vital component of what you do here.
Our fundraising campaign is entitled "Growing Up Green." Studies show that kids are spending close to eight hours a day behind video monitors, iPads and TVs. RBG is a perfect conduit to get kids connected to nature, back to what is was like when we were kids. I grew up in the Red Hill Creek. I learned to skate there, found some salamanders and stuff down there. Then the streetlights came on and you went home.
Figuratively speaking, maybe you're turning on the lights for a lot of kids.
For me, that's probably one of the biggest senses of doing something valuable—when we have young kids here, especially innercity kids, who see a chipmunk or a squirrel or frog, and you see it in their eyes that this is really cool, although it's something that you and I take for granted. People can experience that here. The term is Nature Deficit Disorder. It's partly the computer/TV generation, but it's also a couch potato syndrome, and parents want to be able to keep tabs on their kids all the time, so they don't encourage them to be outside anymore.
What doesn't the average visitor appreciate about RBG?
Its magnitude. Many don't realize that when you're driving west in to Hamilton on the 403 and you look to the right, what looks like a beautiful lake is actually part of RBG. Our property rolls right up to Mc- Master in the west, to West Flamborough in the north and east to Unsworth Avenue in Aldershot. Being fragmented makes looking after the property a huge challenge. We have a very diverse mandate as well—horticulture, conservation, science and education—and we run several businesses here to raise revenues in support of those programs. One angle we're stressing is health promotion. It's a place for fitness or to de-stress. We have over 20 kilometres of nature trails. Our membership is probably the best deal in town.
Yet many locals still haven't been here.
We didn't do any marketing 15, 20 years ago, but now we're trying to create more awareness through marketing and advertising. But we still have to get the word out on the value of RBG to the community—we have so much to offer here.
Every time we hear about a new invasive species, like the Emerald Ash Borer beatle, you must lose another hour of sleep.
I do, and we've had several, including the gypsy moth twice. Four years ago it defoliated most of Hendrie Park, which was a scary thing to see. As for the Emerald Ash Borer, we have approximately 8,000 ash trees. We've removed eight trees right in the parking lot that were dying as a result of the ash borer. The Ministry has provided us with funds to combat some of these.
How environmentally friendly are your sprays and pesticide-type applications?
Generally speaking, RBG has not used pesticides for many years. We're ahead of the game because that's the business we're in. Having said that, we used to apply them for serious, rare cases, and in our rose collection, which are so sensitive to disease. We had to replace 750 rose bushes to bring back the popular colours. We're sort of the test case for new drought- and diseaseresistant cultivars, so our display is much better than recent years. But pulling weeds is still very labour-intensive. We're naturalizing a lot of areas. Starting now, our arboretum is turning into a meadow. We've also planted 1,812 geraniums on York Blvd. as part of a War of 1812 garden trail display.
Any other environmental projects?
There's also Project Paradise, one of the largest freshwater restoration projects in North America. In effect, we're part of the Great Lakes cleanup. Cootes Paradise is essentially a filter for the water that passes into the bay and Lake Ontario. We created a carp barrier there 11 years ago to prevent that invasive species from eating all the vegetation in the area and destroying the ecosystem. The marsh is recovering. People from around the world come to see how we've done it.
You've built some momentum.
Yes, and we want to keep building it. RBG is a key tourism driver for Hamilton/Halton/ Brant. We're situated between Hamilton and Burlington, so it's a challenge not having hotels directly nearby. We want to improve our public transit and are looking into making cycling to the RBG easier. I sit on the board of the new regional tourism organization, RTO #3, and have just been appointed to the board of the American Public Gardens Association; this allows me to visit more gardens, which is always good experience. I find I usually come back with a sense of pride about what we do here and how we do it.
Do you have a favourite plant?
Pachysandra. It's a leafy groundcover that is virtually maintenance-free!