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A look at the economic impact of garden tours

Seward Johnson’s sculpture of a reclining reader rests by the quilt garden at the Old Bag Factory in Elkhart. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A couple of friends and I decided it was time to visit Elkhart County for the 10th anniversary of the Quilt Gardens Tour, which featured several statues from Seward Johnson.

The Quilt Gardens Tour’s designs recall patterns well known to quilters, such as Vibrant Blooms in Dresden Plate and A Burst of Joy.

This year, there are 19 quilt gardens, planted with more than a million annuals, and 22 hand-painted murals along Elkhart County’s Heritage Trail. The free exhibition continues through Oct. 1. After we picked up a tour map at the Wellfield Botanical Garden in Elkhart, we visited gardens in that city and in Wakarusa, Nappanee and Goshen (http://bit.ly/2wgJtjj).

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, the county has installed 56 fascinating, lifelike sculptures by Seward Johnson, whose work also adorns the scene in Carmel, Indiana. The city of Elkhart has several elk and heart sculptures in public spaces, too, as a play off of the name.

Some of you may remember Elkhart as the American city with the highest unemployment rate of 22 percent in 2009. In 2016, the rate was 3.9 percent, with increased recreational vehicle production, a driving force in Amish Country.

The Quilt Gardens Tour visually contributes to a sense of well being with beautiful gardens, and perhaps as an impetus for communities to hang baskets of flowers from light posts and line the streets with pots of blooming plants.

In last week’s column, I talked about Garden Walk Buffalo (http://bit.ly/2wfVy8I) and how that rust-belt city puts 400 gardens on tours to attract 60,000 visitors, one weekend a year. Like Elkhart County, the Garden Walk Buffalo is free.

If we consider an event like this for Indianapolis, some idea of an economic impact would be helpful.

In Buffalo’s case, data from 2010 and 2011 showed the two-day event has a $4.5 million impact, according to an analysis by Richard Benfield, a garden tourism consultant at Central Connecticut State University.

“We did a survey this year and will probably have results by the end of the year,” said Jim Charlier, one of Garden Walk Buffalo’s organizers and participants. “My guess is that it will be similar, but we’ll probably find that visitors are coming from farther away. That’s just a hunch based on anecdotal input. But the more out-of-towners means more economic impact.”

Officials do not break out the Quilt Gardens Tour, but tourism and hospitality in the Elkhart County was $332.1 million in 2015, up 6.5 percent over 2013, said Terry Mark, director of communications and public relations for the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “So far in 2017, our hotel numbers are running higher compared to 2016, about 2 to 4.5 percent higher.”

It may be just a pipe dream or the notion that gardeners are nothing if not optimistic, but Indianapolis could be ready for organized garden tours. Wonder what economic impact would be for us. Let me know what you think.

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