April 2021 – Wither Callaway Gardens?

Part of the reason we’ve always had a fondness from FDR State Park is that it is located adjacent to Callaway Gardens, which has also been one of our favorite places: thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful gardens, miles of bike paths, two golf courses, a wonderful butterfly house, (until recently) a world-class greenhouse, countless natural and hybrid azaleas, all geared towards what has always been the mission of Callaway Gardens: to provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal in an area of natural beauty.

But this trip, we saw something we were not expecting … Callaway Gardens looked like it was struggling, both financially and philosophically.

Attendance had been slipping for years, down from one million visitors per year at its peak in the 1990s to about 400,000 in the past few years. There were several management missteps, including adding an upscale hotel, spa, and housing developments, all of which led to the Gardens bleeding cash, eventually having to sell off about 7000 acres (of its 13,000) to cover its debt. In fact, the upscale hotel, which was designed to complement the Mountain Creek Inn, actually ended up diverting guests, even after the Mountain Creek Inn underwent a $3 million expansion. A new CEO was brought onboard in 2015 (he came with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City) who made some substantial changes, including closing the Sibley Horticulture Center, a greenhouse that was always one of our favorite stops and that was renowned as one of the most advanced greenhouse complexes in the world. That CEO left a couple years ago, and management is now in the hands of HFE Corporation, a company that operates and manages family-oriented theme parks and attractions and is a unit of Herschend Enterprises, the nation’s largest family owned themed attractions and entertainment company.

All of this led to what was a palpable change in the way the Gardens now present themselves. Indeed, even before knowing about the Gardens’ financial woes, we all remarked that it looked like the Gardens was cutting costs and struggling to make ends meet. Besides the closed hulk of the Sibley greenhouse, the grounds themselves were visibly less up-kept, the Mountain Creek Inn is shuttered, and the crowds were noticeably diminished. Plus, there was something incongruous about Callaway Gardens, of all places, closing the greenhouse and garden, while keeping the zip line. To be sure, I like theme parks as much as the next guy, but one would think that a place billing itself as “gardens” would have room for a bench among the flowers.

I’m sure that part of the Gardens’ woes can be attributed to a series of unfortunate external events. Troubles started after 9/11 with the decline in the travel industry, its real estate ventures got walloped by the 2008-2010 real estate crash, it made some bad financial decisions, and it’s certainly suffering right now from the COVID slump.

But I wonder if something else isn’t driving the decline in attendance. Callaway Gardens always sold itself as a place of quiet, introspective beauty. A place of spiritual renewal as much as anything. Obviously, a place to to renew one’s soul is only attractive to people who think they have a soul, which is an increasingly rare belief in America nowadays. And quiet solitude in a place of natural beauty has a hard time competing with the frenetic pace and fractured attention spans of a technology-crazed populace.

All of which may explain why Callaway thinks, probably correctly, that the secret to the Gardens’ future lies not so much in spiritual nourishment as in theme park exhilaration. Whether it can actually build itself up into the kind of would-be theme park that can successfully draw visitors seeking that kind of experience remains to be seen.

But an even bigger question in my mind is whether, succeeding or not, we may lose something of what made Callaway Gardens worth going to, namely that it was precisely not a theme park experience. I don’t know. Maybe the Callaway Foundation, which owns and oversees Callaway Gardens and which is committed to the original Callaway legacy, can strike a balance of attracting enough of the sort of theme-park clientele to keep the gardens going, while preserving enough of the quiet, subtle, natural beauty of the area to provide spiritual nourishment for the rest of us. Or maybe that’s an impossible balance. Or maybe there’s no market for spiritual goods in a world where people find all the affirmation they need in a theme park. We shall see…