Volunteers with the Victoria County Master Gardener Association were busy spreading 800 bags of mulch and 25 tons of granite last week at the Victoria Educational Gardens on Bachelor Drive.
Spiffying up the gardens is just one of many duties the educational nonprofit has taken on in preparation for the 2019 Texas Master Gardener Association Conference. Held in Victoria from April 25-27, the event will be one of the largest of its kind to grace the county and city.
The theme for this year’s conference is Victoria – Nature’s Gateway, highlighting the diverse wildlife and natural landscapes of the Crossroads.
About 430 master gardeners will attend the conference at the Victoria Community Center, said Brynn Lee, a conference co-chairman.
“They are coming from as far as El Paso, Midland-Odessa, up in the Panhandle, North Texas, Dallas … I mean, they are coming from all over,” she said.
Speakers will range from Todd McClanahan, director of the Texas State Park Region 3, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the Bastrop Complex Fire in 2011, to Felder Rushing, a well-known 10th-generation gardener from Mississippi, who travels the U.S. with a garden in his truck bed and hosts an NPR radio show called “The Gestalt Gardener.”
“We will have three speakers each day, and the arena part (of the Victoria Community Center) will be set up with vendors coming from all over Texas,” she said. “We also have a silent auction, our tours (and workshops).”
The Texas Master Gardener Association is a statewide, volunteer-led nonprofit organization that falls under the umbrella of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension through each county extension office. There are gardener associations in 89 of the state’s 254 counties. The Victoria association was started in 1997 and has about 135 members, Lee said.
“It is a wonderful organization for the camaraderie,” she said. “We get together and come out to the gardens (and) work every Monday and Thursday.”
The association also provides a variety of educational programs to children and adults throughout the community.
Each year, the state conference is hosted by a different county. Lee said the Victoria association applied for the honor two years ago, when they had to sell the appeal of Victoria to the Texas Master Gardeners’ board members for approval.
“These conferences have to meet certain criteria,” she said. “Does Victoria have a place to hold this many people? Do we have the hotels (and) the restaurants? You know, is Victoria ready?”
The Victoria association answered these questions with the help of the Victoria Convention and Visitors Bureau, which created a promotional video and provided visitor brochures and hotel data to prove that Victoria is a destination worthy of the conference.
After approval, Kristen Kopecky, group sales and services manager for the Victoria Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped plan attendees’ day trips and organize conference welcome-back distribution.
On the second day of the conference, attendees will have the option to explore the region through tours of the Aransas Bay Habitat, Fulton Mansion, Goose Island State Park, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Formosa Tejano Wetlands and Knopp Branch Farm in Jackson County, along with the Victoria Preservation Inc. historic home tour and Memorial Rose Garden at Riverside Park.
Kopecky said she hopes the conference will help attract more large events in the future.
“This is going to be the first big conference that is being held in Victoria, especially for that duration of time,” she said. “We offer many venues, and I feel like we can accommodate really great groups, especially this size (of a) group.”
The city will also provide transportation for the conference day trips through Elegant-Victoria, Kopecky said.
“(The conference) is a great eye-opener,” she said. “Who knows what this could do? We (could) have other groups and organizations say, ‘Hey, if the Master Gardeners can have their state conference here, then so can we.’”
Because the conference will bring several attendees who will need lodging, the Victoria gardener association will receive about $12,600 in hotel occupancy tax funds from the city of Victoria to help fund the event, Lee said.
In order to be approved for the funds, Lee said the association had to submit projections of the conference’s economic impact on the city and will have to submit additional numbers after the conference to actually receive the funds, which will help cover some of the event costs.
“The majority of these attendees are bringing their spouse or friend that aren’t coming to the actual conference, so during the day, they’re gonna be out at the golf course or at the mall,” she said. “So we’re going to have a pretty good group of people that are going to be out spending money.”
Homewood Suites by Hilton Victoria is the headquarters for the event, but organizers have also contracted for lodging discounts with Best Western Plus Victoria Inn and Suites and Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott Victoria.
Victoria Chamber of Commerce officials also offered support and advice to the the Victoria association for conference planning. Other large events that follow behind the conference in size include the South Texas Transportation Conference and the South Texas Farm and Ranch Show, said Randy Vivian, chamber president.
“I’m hoping the community will embrace this and show these folks a really good time, and that way we can attract more conferences,” he said. “(This conference) can cause more of these (state conferences) to come in, and it gives folks the chance to come in and see what the community is like and come back and visit or come back and stay.”
Victoria is capable of hosting more events of this size with the Victoria Community Center and the Victoria College Emerging Technology Complex, and the community should use these venues to attract more statewide conferences, Vivian said.
Though Lee is thrilled for the Victoria association to have the conference in its backyard, she said there is more to hosting than just the personal benefit.
“If this conference wouldn’t be held in Victoria, some people might have never come to Victoria,” she said. “I keep saying, ‘Sell Victoria,’ and that is what we’re trying to do. This is going to help the city and the county, not just our association.”
Kathryn Cargo contributed to this story.