Former Tulip Festival head sows seeds for horticulture celebration in 2017

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The former head of the Canadian Tulip Festival is spearheading a bid to bring a major international fair dubbed the “Olympics of horticulture” to Ottawa in 2017.

Executive director Michel Gauthier is the director of the proposed International Horticultural Exhibition.

By David Sali

The International Horticultural Exhibition would take place from May to October at a series of local venues, including Lansdowne Park, Queen Juliana Park and a proposed botanical garden at Dow’s Lake.

Project director Michel Gauthier, a former executive director of the Tulip Festival, told OBJ on Thursday he believes the event could draw up to three million visitors, create nearly 5,000 jobs and generate more than $500 million in economic activity in the capital.

“It’s not your average garden festival,” Mr. Gauthier said, adding organizers expect the event to attract delegates from up to 30 countries for meetings, conventions and trade shows.

“There’s a lot of excitement around this. If you invite the world to be here, and the fact that we’re in the capital and we have all these embassies, there will be a lot of hype. We feel confident that (the target of three million visitors) could be reached.”

Flora Ottawa 2017, as the fair would be known, would be sanctioned by the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIHP) and coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

The event is an early indication of what tourism industry officials can expect to take place as part of the celebrations. The industry has high hopes for 2017, but there still aren’t that many confirmed events.

“We feel that it would be the flagship event for the 150th anniversary,” Mr. Gauthier said. “If you have all the provinces and you have 30 countries, it’s like an Expo almost.”

Noting that ornamental horticulture is a multibillion-dollar industry that employs more than 110,000 Canadians including 70,000 in Ontario Mr. Gauthier said studies of past exhibitions have shown an event like Flora could give the local sector up to a 10 per cent boost.

“This is all about jobs,” he said. “I think for Ottawa, it’s a great opportunity to position ourselves as this floral and garden (centre) and to host the Olympics of horticulture.”

Landscape Ontario, the provincial industry association, is leading the bid with the backing of other major industry groups such as the Canadian Ornamental Alliance and the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association.

Mr. Gauthier said his committee has already met with senior officials at city hall, the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group and the Glebe Community Association – all of whom have expressed support for the project.

AIHP has already granted the 2017 exhibition to Canada, Mr. Gauthier confirmed, and no other cities are in the bidding. The Ottawa group plans to present its proposal at the organization’s next meeting in London in April, but still must secure funding to get AIHP’s final approval at a fall meeting in China, he said.

The group is planning to meet soon with federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Gerry Ritz and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in the hopes of landing $26 million from the feds for the event, which has a projected budget of about $160 million.

Mr. Gauthier is seeking a matching contribution from the province, with the rest of the funding coming from the private sector, industry associations and revenues from visitors.

A major focal point of the 150-day fair would be the proposed Canadensis botanical garden, a 34-acre site on the western shore of Dow’s Lake. The Canadensis Botanical Garden Society, a non-profit group, has laid out a business plan for the park and is targeting 2017 to open the first phase of the project.

“The major legacy of (Flora Ottawa 2017) would be this botanical garden and … branding Ottawa as a floral garden destination,” said Mr. Gauthier.

“We are known as a green capital. It’s kind of building on a natural asset, but just taking it to another level by bringing it to international attention.”

The exhibition’s start date of May 13, 2017 would coincide with the Canadian Tulip Festival. The event would wrap up on Oct. 9.

Tulip festival chair David Luxton said landing the event would be a coup for the local horticulture and tourism sectors.

“It does leave behind a lot of lasting legacy infrastructure that has enduring economic value,” he said. “It’s a natural for Ottawa in a lot of ways.”

Industry officials agreed.

“Ottawa is a natural horticultural destination by virtue of the National Capital Commission’s extensive floral gardens, the internationally known Canadian Tulip Festival and the work under way by Canadensis to establish a botanical garden in the nation’s capital,” Landscape Ontario past vice-president Tim Kearney said in a statement.

The last Canadian city to host the International Horticultural Exhibition was Montreal, which attracted 1.7 million visitors in 1980.

Organizations: OBJ, International Association of Horticultural Producers, Canadian Ornamental Alliance Canadian Nursery Landscape Association Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group Glebe Community Association Canadensis Botanical Garden Society National Capital Commission

Geographic location: Ottawa, Lansdowne Park, Queen Juliana Park Canada Ontario London China Agri Montreal

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