A SELF-DESCRIBED "GARDEN enthusiast," John Sliwa first came to the Mahoning Valley to check out Fellows Riverside Gardens and the D.D. and Velma Davis Education and Visitors Center.
Since then, he and his wife, both of Pittsburgh, have come back and visited the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown State University, "and of course, Boardman for the shopping," he said.
"Youngstown is one of the places that needs to be rediscovered," Sliwa said, adding that he and his wife visit the Mahoning Valley about four times each year.
Sliwa's comments illustrate what Keith Kaiser, assistant horticulture director for Fellows Riverside Gardens, says about the $6 million education and visitors center.
"It becomes a destination point," Kaiser said. "It's definitely a plus for Youngstown."
Harry Meshel, president of the Mill Creek MetroParks Board of Park Commissioners, added that he thinks the center could be as valuable to the Valley as the Butler Institute and Stambaugh and Powers auditoriums.
"I don't know of any other facility quite like that in this part of the country," he said.
A people pleaser
Last year was the first full year of operation for the center, which is in Fellows Riverside Gardens at the north end of Mill Creek Park. The Mill Creek MetroParks annual report shows that on three occasions during the year, the center recorded a daily attendance of about 3,000.
"I just think it's a great asset to Youngstown," said Joanne Duvall of Boardman. Audrey Korenic of Liberty noted that the location of the center, on McKinley Avenue in Youngstown, near Interstate 680, makes it easily accessible for visitors.
"It's convenient," she said. Duvall and Korenic serve as volunteer guides in Fellows Riverside Gardens.
Orlando, Fla., resident John Kleja said the center was unlike any facility he'd seen in Georgia or Florida.
"It's something really nice to see," he said while visiting the center with friend Rosemarie Bish of Canfield.
A look inside
The 24,000-square-foot, two-story center features a gift shop, an auditorium, classrooms, an art gallery and a terrace cafe that serves lunch from The Georgetown restaurant in Boardman. The cafe provides a breathtaking view of Lake Glacier, which is downhill from the center.
"I like it here, it's bright in every room. It's bright no matter where you go," Bish said.
Judy Toohey of Youngstown said she was so impressed with the center when it first opened in December 2000 that she later brought her elderly mother back for lunch.
"I just think it's lovely," she said.
The center is the site of several educational programs and flower shows during the year. Sliwa said that because of a display in the center from a recent daffodil show, "I had a million questions about daffodils answered."
Living museum
Kaiser stressed that as a "living museum," the center and the park have a responsibility to educate visitors while showing them the beauty of nature. He added that the center was needed to respond to an increased demand for gardening classes and other programs in the parks.
Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens, a community organization that helps support the parks, began raising money to construct the center in 1993. At the time, classes at the park were taught from an outdated garden building.
"It was getting in bad shape," Kaiser said. "We had one toilet in the building. We now have 23."
By August 1999, Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens had raised $6 million through private donations and a $100,000 state grant, and construction began on the center.
Today, visitors to the center praise its view of Lake Glacier, the activities it provides for families, and its serene atmosphere.
"I just feel my blood pressure lowering," Korenic said.
Sliwa noted that some of his friends and neighbors have started to talk about what the center can offer visitors.
"I think the word's getting out," he said.

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