A world-renowned but low-profile South Sound tourist attraction could be moving to Seattle if a Tacoma foundation’s effort to keep it local isn’t successful.
In play is the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, a fixture on the Weyerhaeuser Co.’s Federal Way campus since the forest products company created it as a Washington centennial project in 1989.
The company has sought proposals for the collection of the Japanese art form of miniature trees grown in containers from the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and from Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum.
Under the proposals, Weyerhaeuser would donate the collection to the winning entity. The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, which set up Lakewold Gardens in Lakewood as a nonprofit organization, would keep the collection on its present site. The arboretum presumably would move the collection’s plants to the park near the University of Washington in Seattle.
Jeff Pritchard, director of philanthropic services for the Tacoma foundation, said Friday that the foundation had conducted a study for Weyerhaeuser last year concerning the collection’s fate. That study suggested putting the collection in the hands of a charity that would operate and market the collection.
Pritchard said the foundation hopes to raise a significant endowment to fund the collection’s continued operation and maintenance.
Weyerhaeuser ended public access to the collection in 2009 when the wood products and home building company was hit by the collapse of the real estate and home building market. It reopened in May 2010 when business conditions improved.
Donating the collection to another entity would end Weyerhaeuser’s continuing obligation to support the collection’s operation, a cost that insiders say is several hundred thousand dollars a year.
The Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection is one of the top three bonsai exhibits in North America, said David DeGroot, the collection’s curator.
“I’m speaking not just from my own perspective, but from what others in the bonsai world have told me,” said DeGroot, who has been a collection employee for 24 years.
Pritchard said that if the foundation is successful in its proposal, the foundation would likely hire more employees to raise the collection’s public profile and attract more visitors. The collection now attracts about 30,000 visitors a year.
The foundation might consider charging admission to the exhibit to fund its expansion and acquisition program. The admission is now free.
Most major horticultural and garden exhibits worldwide charge admission, he said.
Bruce Kendall, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, said he has asked local business leaders to write letters of support to ensure that the collection stays in the South Sound.
Sue Goetz, owner of Tacoma’s Urban Garden Co. and the Creative Gardener online, said keeping the collection in the South Sound area is important.
“I’m getting weary of having to travel to Seattle to see the attractions,” she said. The collection, she said, is an important asset for the South Sound and for plant and art enthusiasts alike.
Bennish Brown, president of the Tacoma Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he too is supporting the effort to retain the collection in the South Sound and to grow it as a regional attraction.
“I understand that people come from all around the world to see the bonsai collection,” he said. “It’s one more reason that people have to extend their stay in Pierce County.”
The collection may be just over the county line in King County, but it is a regional tourist magnet, he said.
“People don’t pay attention to political boundaries when they come to visit. I don’t think we should, either,” he said.
Tacoma backers said they had considered proposing moving the collection to Tacoma or to the city’s Wright Park, but they believe the South Sound proposal would be more appealing to the Weyerhaeuser Co. by keeping the collection in the same place.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663