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Chester County Press

Longwood Gardens: Reimagining its future beyond the pandemic

06/16/2021 10:24AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Paul Redman has been the President and CEO of Longwood Gardens for the past 15 years, and over that time, has served as a primary architect for establishing the institution’s place as a living museum of gardens that is known throughout the world.

On his watch – and accompanied by the generosity of private donors and a tireless staff of more than 1,500 – annual attendance has risen to an average of 1.54 million visitors, memberships have increased from 17,000 to more than 73,000 households and earned income has tripled.

As 2020 began, Redman and his staff were anticipating a year of record-breaking attendance that would coincide with a project that will transform a 17-acre portion of Longwood Gardens into a stunning canopy of glasshouses, a new restaurant, a new courtyard and a state-of-the-art education center and administration building.

Then on March 13, Longwood Gardens was forced to shut its doors to COVID-19, and suddenly, the normal streams of revenue – attendance, food and beverage and retail sales – had all evaporated. With little warning, Chester County’s showcase to the region and the world was shocked into silence, and its leadership was left scrambling to find ways to remain viable.

 “We had to respond very quickly,” said Redman, who was the featured speaker at the Historic Kennett Square Economic Development Council’s June 11 online meeting. “There was a lot of uncertainty as to what we were supposed to do. We were even uncertain if we could have staff come to take care of the plants. We had to sort it out over the weekend and the following week.

“[Longwood Gardens] was a frightening place to be.”

On March 13, Longwood Gardens employed 1,521 staff and 780 volunteers. By May 1, the paid staff was reduced to 244, and all part-time employees, students and seasonal employees were furloughed. COVID-19’s impact was also seen on its grounds: because of staff layoffs, over 300,000 flowering bulbs had to be sent to the compost.

Quickly, the Longwood leadership established institutional objectives to provide for internal communications, stabilize revenue, elevate the Longwood brand name and increase engagement throughout the pandemic.

It would become, for Redman and his staff, reinventing, reframing and reimagining, all against the backdrop of uncertainty.

There were so many different pieces of information coming out and so much ambiguity, and the staff was looking to us for clarity and confidence,” Redman said.We had to take on the role of establishing the facts as quickly as possible and responding as quickly as possible.”

Stewarding the Global Garden

As Longwood Gardens begins to resurface from the ashes left by a 15-month pandemic and strategically returns to its normal operating procedure, it does so with the news that it now employs over 800 staff, and is in a hiring mode to coincide with the anticipated increase in attendance through its popular holiday season.

Redman said that the annual operating budget is anticipated to rise back to its earlier levels.

“If you look at that operating budget, you can see that the ancillary spending that occurs as a result of our activities here, that it supports about 2,600 jobs in Pennsylvania and Delaware,” he said. “That’s about $165 million being regenerated into the local economy.”

At the aesthetic and economic center of Longwood’s post-pandemic future is its Longwood Reimagined project, a $240 million investment that Redman said will have residual impact on the local economy by generating as many as 4,000 jobs between now and 2024 when the project is anticipated to be completed.

As the Longwood Reimagined project continues to take root, Longwood’s thread of priorities will also expand its admission policies to help provide opportunities for a wider audience of learners and visitors.

It’s all part of what Redman calls “Stewarding the Global Garden.”

“The best way to encapsulate our engagement and learning programs is that they are all about the promotion of horticultural careers, workforce development and workforce promotion for anything having to do with public gardens,” Redman said. “From K-12 through post-high school and post-college, we are all about giving people the skills to become successful business owners or to work at Longwood or other public gardens throughout the world.”

In addition, Longwood has introduced Longwood Shines, a year-round program that offers communities and families a reduced admission fee to the gardens. In the past year, Longwood also became the first public garden in the world to offer virtual live learning opportunities for children, and provided free horticultural education for 23,000 K-12 students around the world.

As he begins to peer into the crystal ball future of Longwood Gardens, Redman said that a top priority will be to examine the institution’s place within the local community and subsequently, its economy.

It starts, he said, with the continued beautification of nearby Kennett Square Borough, which Redman said should eventually “become recognized as the most beautiful village in America” and serve as a resource in the future for those who visit Longwood Gardens.

Establishing Kennett Square with that designation, Redman said, “begins with conversation. It’s about focusing on that North Star and setting aside your own personal motives and what you’re trying to accomplish for your own business and doing it for the betterment of all.

“There has been movement forward in other projects in the county, so it’s about how we come together as a community, as business leaders, as philanthropists and as concerned citizens to make it work.

“None of us at Longwood ever want Longwood to become an island onto itself,” Redman added. “It’s about us being an integrated part of the community and playing a role in the continued advancement and improvement of the quality of life for everyone in our region – and that includes the economy. When everyone is prospering…Longwood is winning, too.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].