Betty Ford Alpine Gardens education center opens |

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens education center opens

The living sedum roof of the new Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center is seen in the foreground of a party celebrating the facility donors in Vail on Wednesday. The unique roof is packed with modular pods of succulents.
Nina Riggio | Vail Daily |

VAIL — Susan Ford Bales got a little emotional at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new education center at the alpine gardens that bear the name of her mother, Betty Ford. She wasn’t the only one.

“This is my mother’s dream come true,” Bales said. “She would be amazed at all this.”

“All this” is a new education center for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. The new center, just west of the actual gardens at Ford Park, was unveiled to numerous “oohs” and “ahhs” Wednesday at a special reception for donors and longtime friends of the facility.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” longtime volunteer and board member Gwen Scalpello said. “This is a dream we’ve had since 1996.”

That dream, supported by Ford and driven for many years by Vail residents Bob and Helen Fritch, is more than offices or a place to start plants. The education center, built into a small hillside, features a library, offices and meeting rooms. But it also features a greenhouse for alpine plants.

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Nick Courtens, the gardens’ senior horticulturist, has already spent countless hours in the greenhouse. He found the special tula limestone, a rare, porous rock that plants can grow into as if clinging to a mountainside. The rock in the greenhouse came from Hot Springs, South Dakota. There’s about one semi tractor-trailer rig’s worth of the stone in the greenhouse, and Courtens has already started several plants in the sandy soil.

“We have alpine plants from all over the world here,” Courtens said. “They’re very tough to grow, and now we can expand our plant base.”

Courtens said the company that provided the rock for the greenhouse sold the stone at wholesale.

“That’s how supportive they were of what we’re doing,” he said.

Local companies also contributed a lot of time and material to the project. Jennifer Weintraub of R.A. Nelson, the company that built the facility, said several local firms provided in kind donations.


Once the work began in 2014, it went pretty quickly.

Dennis Ward, R.A. Nelson’s project supervisor, said weather — particularly an exceptionally wet month of May — was the biggest challenge on the project.

In fact, gardens Executive Director Nicola Ripley said the facility made the trip from the drawing board to reality fairly quickly. But getting to a plan for that building, in that place, took a lot of time.

For its 25-year history, the gardens has used office space in Vail Village, a small gift shop in an old one-room schoolhouse and a tool shed on the upper end of the gardens. While the gardens is a nonprofit group, the board of directors first decided to include an education facility in town plans for an extensive renovation plan for Ford Park.

“The timing was right. … I kind of jammed my foot in the door and wouldn’t pull it out,” Ripley said.

That 2012 design, intended for the site of the old schoolhouse, drew public opposition, with critics claiming the new facility added too much construction to an area that needed to remain as open as possible. A split Vail Town Council rescinded its initial approval that year.

A new overall plan for the park, approved in 2013, also brought an idea to put the education center in a more unobtrusive portion of the park.

Vail Town Council member Margaret Rogers is also a member of the gardens’ board. Rogers still believes the original plan was a good one. That said though, Rogers, like other board members, is impressed with the final result.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Rogers said. “It’s a real asset to the community.”

Ripley said bigger and better things are coming now that the gardens has a real home.

“Becoming the world’s premier alpine garden was a vision two years ago,” she said. “Now it’s a reality.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, or @scottnmiller.

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