The Power Of Flowers

Economy Threatens Plantings That Help Annapolis Make Good Impression

August 30, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

You can count the tourists who visit during a summer, the T-shirts sold in stores, the diners who sample Chesapeake crab or raw oysters or imported lobster in the local restaurants.

But as Annapolitans are finding out this summer and fall, it's harder to measure the value of beauty.

As a flagging economy continues to cause residents and elected officials to tighten their belts, the City of Flowers by the Bay program that has adorned the brick-lined streets of downtown Annapolis with everything from petunias, impatiens and lantana to banana plants for more than a decade is under siege, and a few dozen merchants and residents are working hard to save it.

"I'd hate to think of this town without the flowers," says Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary's Jewelers on Main Street and a driving force behind the movement to preserve the program, which comes with a price tag of about $60,000 a year. "Take them away, and it would just be a different place."

Samaras, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, and dozens of private citizens are staging three fundraising events for the cause, the first of which, a $40-per-ticket social, was at the Naval Academy football stadium Friday.

The second, the Annapolis Tomato Festival, billed as "a full day of tomato appreciation," is slated for Sept. 12 at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville.

Those familiar with downtown Annapolis, at least as it has looked since the mid-1990s, know it as a quaint, brick-lined shopping and dining district that draws 4.5 million visitors a year, according to Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

For years, the city has been a magnet for national and international recognition. National Geographic, Forbes magazine and other major publications have placed Annapolis on Top 10 lists for beauty, green awareness and livability. The American Society of Landscape Architects has lauded its appearance, and the International Awards for Livable Communities in the U.K. just named it a finalist in its Whole City Awards competition for 2009.

How much of that attention stems from 330-plus hanging baskets and street planters overflowing with flora is hard to say, but the bright colors the program weaves into a streetscape otherwise dominated by period-style brick and metal are hard to miss.

"I think they're fabulous. They draw out the feel and character of old-town Annapolis," says Betsy Murashige of Severna Park, who has lived in Anne Arundel County for years. "All the tourists comment about them. They add as much as bringing flowers into your home."

Hanging flower baskets are considered a good investment by many cities and towns, says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "People make decisions every day about where to visit, where to invest and where to retire based on what communities look like," he says. "A community with flowers and trees, and without billboards and shlock, will always attract more business than one that looks like everyplace else. Annapolis is a major tourist attraction precisely because it looks different and unique, and the flowers are part of the package."

What McMahon calls "return on perception" can be hard to quantify, though, when it comes to soliciting funds. Earlier this year, a few City Council members proposed terminating the city's involvement, which for years was $25,000 annually.

The Annapolis Business Association, a consortium of merchants, kicked in the same amount, with community leaders raising the rest independently.

When the political dust settled, the city had cut its investment to $10,000 a year, the ABA followed suit, and merchants and residents were left to pick up the slack.

"We had two choices," says Samaras, a voluble man whose storefront windows look out on the water. "One, let the program die. Two, raise $40,000 to keep it going, and still more to help it thrive into the future.

"We've already built a nice little war chest," he says.

That's pretty hopeful for a program that almost never happened at all.

Samaras remembers how it all started. In 1995, the city closed Main Street for renovations, a project the jeweler backed even though it hurt downtown business for a year.

When the work was done, the city decided to supply planters up and down Main Street to freshen up the place. But it earmarked no money for maintenance.

"Within three weeks, all the plants died, and passers-by started using the pots as ashtrays," says Samaras, an Annapolis native who founded his business in 1992. "It was awful to look at, the exact opposite of what was intended. I still have the pictures to prove it."

He got on the horn with longtime friend and fellow native Don Riddle, the owner of Homestead Gardens, the Davidsonville nursery. Both loved the idea of flowers downtown, as they seemed to highlight the improvements the city had made and its commitment to beautification.

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