COLUMBIA — Alpine Park and Gardens is in a constant state of change as Barry Homan works to transform it into an ideal setting for weddings, anniversaries and more. His hands dirty and chapped from working the grounds every day, Homan finished picking up fallen walnuts so he could mow — and so he could feed them to the squirrels in winter.
Then he stopped to talk about the business he's literally built from the ground up.
Alpine Park and Gardens, 10 miles north of Columbia, is a popular destination for outdoor events such as weddings, family reunions and family photo shoots. It's a business that has defied the economic downturn. Although it mainly attracts couples from mid-Missouri, the park also draws clients from around the country, and Homan finds himself booked nearly every weekend.
Homan co-owns the business with his wife, Sherri Homan. But because she works full time as an epidemiologist, most of the work at the park falls to him.
Transforming the 42-acre property is a never-ending job.
"You evolve with the ground, and it constantly changes," Homan said.
The changes, whether as small as planting a flower or as large as creating a koi pond, started just before the Homans were united in the first wedding that took place on the land.
Sherri Homan originally owned 10 acres of what is now Alpine Park. After some landscaping work, the two got married on the land 17 years ago. That's when the idea of creating an outdoor venue took hold. They envisioned creating a beautiful park without harming the Earth.
"We didn't strip the ground to build it," Homan said. "We built around the trees and the way the land lays. We haven't changed the face of the Earth in a way that messes with Mother Nature. We work with Mother Nature."
Homan started by building a timber-frame pavilion that seats 200 and eventually expanded the park to include an amphitheater, a pond teeming with bright orange-and-white koi and a jungle-themed garden featuring small statues of gorillas, elephants and birds.
"I took pretty much this 10 acres and turned it into my landscaping gem," Homan said.
Alpine Park and Gardens is more than just a wedding venue, Homan said. He said some clients don't realize he offers a wide array of services. He creates partnerships with flower shops. He works with caterers. He can even fill the role of bridal consultant.
For some people, though, the most shocking thing about Alpine Park is that it has restrooms. Some of Homan's clients are surprised by that, given that it's so far out in the country.
Homan said it's funny that he has to tell some people about the restrooms. "They think we're Third World or something," he joked.
Newlyweds Wendy and Ryan Moore, who were married at Alpine on June 5, said they wanted a wedding in the country. Alpine lived up to their expectations.
"I've always wanted an outdoor wedding," the bride said. "And Alpine has a big reception hall, so if the weather didn't cooperate we could have moved it inside and been fine. It is an outdoor wedding without the stress of the weather."
Website helps draw clients
Homan walked over fallen leaves to his pavilion and pointed out the way he dries his linens. Tablecloths of different sizes and shapes hung from a clothesline, breaking the pavilion into sections: the stage, the sitting area and the bar.
Without decorations, the pavilion looks little like the pictures featured on the Alpine Park website. It's a simple wooden frame with no walls. There are no whimsical lights, arranged tables or flowers. Inspired by Homan's imagination, though, Wendy Moore said they could see it was the perfect place for them.
On the website, the Moores and other prospective clients can see the pavilion at its full potential. Colored cloth covers the wooden beams, and lights line the ceiling. Open curtains — which can be closed when it's cold or rainy — allow the natural light in. Formal linens and flowers adorn every table, and a band performs on the stage.
Although the majority of Alpine's clients come from mid-Missouri, Homan said, he's had numerous clients from St. Louis and Springfield, and even some from Illinois and New York.
"This is only for the rest of this year," Homan said as he glanced at a blue three-ringed binder full of events scheduled for the year. "We already have another binder for 2012 and 2013."
Alpine Park and Gardens has weekends booked into 2013. Although he has an anniversary party booked for 2014, he conceded bookings that far in advance are rare.
Homan thumbed through the pages of his 2011 binder. "If you have an important enough event, you'll book far enough in advance to make sure you get the date you need," he said.
Nicholas and LeAnn Schatzer, who were married at Alpine on Oct. 13, booked their date almost a year in advance.
"When we saw it for the first time, there was snow on the ground," Nicholas Schatzer said. "We went a couple times this spring and a couple times this summer. It was neat to watch it grow through all four seasons."
Not all couples have time to watch the park grow, though. The website, Homan said, is a key to booking clients who are too far away to visit or who book in the winter. He keeps an up-to-date schedule of events that tells where clients are from and offers testimonials and photographs from past events.
The website offers photos of the grounds' deep purple Prince William flowers and lavender and yellow irises. There are photos of trees, some featuring their summer green and some with branches hanging low from the weight of snow and ice. Children gaze into the koi pond as the brightly colored fish surface and swarm to feast on food visitors are encouraged to toss to them. The Alpine Park sign, hidden by pastel yellow flowers, marks the long gravel driveway.
The Moores booked their June wedding in February. They visited the park first, but the ground was covered in snow, and the trees and vegetation appeared dead. That didn’t stop them from booking, though.
"I was sold off the website," Wendy Moore said.
Even more important than the website, Homan said, is establishing trust. The Schatzers agree.
"We felt he was very trustworthy," LeAnn Schatzer said of Homan. "It was more like dealing with a family member as opposed to a wedding coordinator."
Schatzer said Homan put her and her husband in touch with photographers and florists, who exceeded their expectations. Nicholas Schatzer said Homan even worked late and invited them to come taste the food they planned to serve. He met with them multiple times before the wedding and took all the stress off the bride by taking care of the planning himself.
"To sum it all up, there wasn't one thing we would have changed about our wedding," LeAnn Schatzer said.
More than just a job
Homan spends 70 to 80 hours a week working at the park, but Alpine is more than a job to him. Perhaps what sets Alpine apart from other outdoor venues is its personality, Homan said. It's a park, not "just a building in a parking lot."
And it's a park that's always evolving. Homan said he plans to add a short disc golf course so groomsmen don't get bored while wedding parties are primping. He's also working on a Japanese garden.
The Schatzers, however, said Alpine's success is also about Homan's down-to-earth, open-to-anybody personality.
Although Homan is the owner, he doesn't push the work onto anyone else. He's willing to sit down and talk about anything: economics, the success of his business, the logistics of transplanting plants for the winter. He's willing to drink a beer with his clients or to meet with them in the middle of the day on short notice.
He said he tries to get along with everyone and usually succeeds. He joked that the mothers of brides can sometimes be difficult.
"He's relaxed and easygoing," LeAnn Schatzer said. "I don't know how anybody couldn’t get along with him."
Homan said he's proud of what he's achieved.
"Some people have kids and leave things to kids," Homan said. "We'll leave the park as a legacy. It's kind of like our child. We'll leave our footprint on society."