Ed Schneider has been like a shot of Miracle-Gro for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
During his five years as director, attendance has shot up to 400,000 yearly visitors, an all-time record. Fundraising, too, has broken ceilings, and a bumper crop of new programs and exhibits has been launched, with more to come.
Now Schneider, the man credited with the “Arb’s’’ robust growth, is leaving to take a job in Texas. But representatives of the arboretum say they’re confident the momentum Schneider initiated will continue.
“Ed did a lot to increase attendance, with events that drew the public again and again,” said Brian Buhr, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. Buhr faces a tall order: Find a replacement for Schneider, who is leaving at the end of the year. Buhr said he expects to announce an interim director as soon as next week, and begin a national search for a permanent director for the 1,200-acre research facility and public attraction in Chaska.
“We’ve got to get the right person in there by next summer — somebody who really understands the mission and has the managerial skills to move the Arb forward in its growth.”
Next summer is significant. Schneider’s departure comes as the arboretum is preparing to launch several major initiatives, including the $6.9 million Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center and a Chinese garden walk. To complete those and other projects, the facility is engaged in a $60 million capital campaign, the most ambitious fundraising effort in its 56-year history.
Buhr admitted he was “a little surprised at the timing” of Schneider’s announcement, given that the campaign ends next June.
But he and board members said the plans are well under way, and they expect little or no impact on new programs.
“Most of the money has been raised. We’re more than 80 percent there,” said Joe Tashjian, a member of the arboretum’s board of trustees. “I can’t imagine we won’t get there. What he [Schneider] has done for us is spectacular. He is an excellent leader, and he will be missed. But the Arboretum will do very well. We will find an excellent replacement. I have no worries.”
Schneider also said he’s confident the new projects are in good hands. “A strong team will carry the torch forward.”
Under Schneider’s leadership, the arboretum was able to increase attendance even after raising its entry fee, from $9 to $12 in 2012. After a temporary dip, attributed to road construction, attendance not only recovered but increased.
The site strove to add value and attract visitors with a proliferation of new projects, including a sculpture garden and last summer’s popular Legos exhibit, which drew throngs of young families.
“It brought children to the Arb in numbers not experienced before,” said Tashjian, who also credited Schneider with adding exhibits and events that helped bring more diversity to the facility. “One thing the Arb does is bring in all races and colors,” he said.
“Visitors talk with their wallets and their feet,” said Schneider. The Arb strove to accommodate guests on low or fixed incomes by offering free admission every third Thursday, as well as during the month of January, also part of an effort to “engage with people during the cold winter period.”
Schneider took an “entrepreneurial approach” to growing the arboretum, according to board member Todd Wagner. “One of the reasons Ed was brought on was he had experience in both the public and private model.
The arboretum really needed someone to come and think in an entrepreneurial way about how to grow. He brought energy, focus and a clear agenda. He engaged donors and galvanized them.”
Schneider’s contributions go beyond boosting attendance and fundraising, according to Peter Moe, director of operations and research.
“Ed did a really great job of maintaining strong research gardens,” Moe said, expanding collaboration with Russian plant researchers and forging new ties with researchers in Belarus. “He also expanded woody plant breeding, and endangered plant research,” Moe added. “He’s leaving us on very strong footing.”
Schneider’s new job, as chief executive of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) in Fort Worth, will be “an opportunity to return to some of my roots, in plant sciences and botany,” he said.
“At heart, he is a researcher, a research botanist,” said Tashjian.
Schneider, who also serves as a professor of horticultural science at the U, recently was recognized for his water lily research by the Botanical Society of America.
BRIT operates a huge herbarium, which Schneider said he hopes to expand. “I’ve enjoyed working at a public garden. The Arboretum is a northern treasure.”
But Texas, where he taught for a number of years earlier in his career, has other lures, including proximity to his grown daughter, who lives there. “I most appreciate the philanthropic spirit of Minnesota,” he said. “And I love the four seasons. I’ll miss that.”