Landscape architect stiffed as Massachusetts Horticulture Society struggles

Dan McDonald

For three days Jared Sell toiled in the soil.

In the end, tomatoes, sod grass, lettuce, and flowering plants dotted his 750 square feet of greenery inside the Bayside Expo Center in Boston in early March as part of the Massachusetts Horticulture Society's annual New England Spring Flower Show.

A model train snaked through the scene, while information panels correlated vegetables with alternative fuel sources.

The cost of such a patch? About $3,500.

Sell dipped into his college savings - buoyed by several years of landscape work and his job as a summer counselor for a local theatrical program - to front the money needed for the display with the understanding the Massachusetts Horticultural Society would reimburse him for his troubles.

"I was hoping to get it back for my first tuition payment,'' said Sell, who will start pursuing a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Rhode Island in the fall.

Unbeknownst to the 18-year-old Framingham native, seeds of financial ruin were sprouting problems for the storied society.

Sell, who won three awards for his project at the flower show, has yet to see a check.

And he's not holding his breath.

That's because the 179-year-old organization is fiscally foundering.

Facing a budget squeeze, two-thirds of its staff has been let go in the last two months.

The Wellesley Townsman reported last week the organization presently has nine paid positions, down from more than 30 in rosier financial times.

There has been talk of discontinuing the annual New England Spring Flower Show - a local institution that still draws tens of thousands each year, said trustee Holly Perry.

The society was established in 1871. Its Web site indicates the annual event is the longest-running flower show of its kind in the United States and the third-largest in the world.

Trustees have seriously considered folding the organization, which is headquartered at Elm Bank, a 36-acre swath of land in Wellesley and Dover.

The society is funded through endowments, membership fees, grants, and some government funding.

The group has launched a "Save Our Society'' fundraising campaign, hoping to raise $800,000.

"We made the decision to at least have Custer's Last Stand,'' said Perry Monday.

Perry indicated a multitude of factors led to the troubled economic times.

Rising utility costs have not helped.

"The entire green industry is hurting,'' she said. "To heat a greenhouse nowadays is exorbitant.''

Inaccurate estimates for the Gardens on the Greenway project in Boston - an extensive project in a string of parks and greenspace that runs along what was formerly the Central Artery.

"You name it and it went wrong,'' said Perry.

By the end of July, Sell said he received a letter suggesting he could write off his expenditures as a donation to a non-profit organization on his tax forms.

"I have not heard from them since that letter,'' said Sell.

Sell said he was initially told by employees of the organization that only a small number of parties had not received reimbursement.

To which Perry says, "All creditors will be treated equally.''

Perry acknowledged that such a letter was more appropriate for some of the larger companies that put on displays for the show, not someone like Sell, who graduated from Framingham High School this past spring.

Perry said the board was hoping to come to a decision regarding potential payment plans by the end of September.

The society, meanwhile, will continue to wrangle with a budget gap that spans at least $800,000.

"We had to put a stop to the money that is going out,'' said Perry.

Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at dmcdonal@cnc.com

The MetroWest Daily News