By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
Nearly five months after Mill Creek MetroParks eliminated the positions of key Fellows Riverside Gardens staff members, some critics doubt the MetroParks’ ability to hold the public botanical gardens to their traditionally high standards.
Critics point to perceived changes in the gardens – unmulched areas, unplanted flower beds, a proliferation of weeds and diseased roses – as evidence the facility is suffering from the loss of personnel, as well as the exodus of volunteers who have refused to come back to the MetroParks since the staff cuts.
MetroParks officials, however, adamantly deny any slip in the gardens’ quality, and dispute the claim that loss of manpower has had an impact on the Gardens’ long-term success.
In response to complaints from members of the public – which have abounded on social media and at recent park board meetings – the MetroParks recently reached out to The Vindicator to offer a tour of the gardens.
So did Deby Clark of Austintown, a professional florist who volunteered at Fellows for many years. She led a Vindicator reporter on a tour of the gardens to point out some of the perceived flaws.
Overall, the natural beauty of the 12-acre grounds remained. Its sprawling lawns unfolded into picturesque vistas; colorful blooms peeked out of bushes and planted beds; and
gorgeous trees shaded the Gardens’ serene paths.
Fellows workers say they are hard at work tending to the grounds.
Yet, a few areas looked unkempt, with numerous pockets bare and sparsely planted, and other planted areas choked by piles of leaves and fallen tree branches.
“I expected this to go downhill. But not in four months, and not this much,” said Clark, one of the most outspoken voices arguing that the staff cuts have hurt the gardens.
While the MetroParks acknowledged it is a few days behind its normal upkeep schedule – and readily admitted it requires a huge effort to keep the gardens looking their best – officials rejected the criticism of the grounds’ appearance.
“The staff here is extremely skilled,” said gardens director Andrew Pratt, who led The Vindicator on the tour. “Despite what people may be saying, I’m not going to let the gardens slip.”
“Fellows Riverside Gardens is an integral part of Mill Creek MetroParks. So the idea that it would be allowed to slip, under anyone’s direction, simply isn’t true,” said Lori Shandor, MetroParks development director. “If you come in and you only look for the bad, you’re only going to see the bad.
“We don’t have any reason to believe the gardens are in any worse shape than they used to be.”
Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens, the nonprofit group that supports the gardens, identified a need for additional help and reported a loss of volunteers but is not concerned about the facility’s overall quality.
Both the MetroParks and Friends say they believe that the gardens will soon be able to overcome any challenges and will remain the much-lauded area gem that historically has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The most-adamant critics, also noting the enormous effort that must be put into maintaining the gardens, don’t have such an optimistic outlook.
Casual visitors to the gardens this week gave mixed reviews.
Jerri Grams of Cortland, whose daughter is having her wedding there, expressed awe at the gardens’ beauty.
“This is a well-hidden treasure. I don’t see that there’s anything wrong. It’s beautiful,” she said.
Susan and John Reitmann of Poland, while visiting the gardens with family from out of town, were appalled by what they described as the “shabby” state of Fellows.
“It’s a beautiful park. And it’s a beautiful garden. But you can definitely see some changes,” Susan said.
Amid conflicting assessments of the gardens, however, one thing seems to be clear: the crowning jewel atop the Mill Creek MetroParks’ crown is in transition.
A BIG JOB
Of the 13 park employees whose positions were eliminated as part of the February staff restructuring implemented by MetroParks Executive Director Aaron Young, seven worked at the Gardens. Fellows also lost two staffers who resigned, including its volunteer coordinator.
The plan eliminated the positions of two rangers who were stationed at the gardens; a plant curator; a gardener; a development associate; a housekeeper; and longtime horticulture director Keith Kaiser, whose dismissal upset many community members.
Kaiser has been described as an expert in his field who brought immense dedication, and uncommon passion and vision, to the job. Some also have noted what they say was his skill at drawing volunteers and donors to Fellows.
Before the staff cuts, Fellows employees had a full workload in tending to the Gardens.
Someone must design the displays and order the plants. Fellows maintains detailed records of its stock, and labels much of what’s on display.
Then there is the job of actually growing and caring for the tens of thousands of plants housed at Fellows. That requires constant attention to tasks such as watering, weeding, pruning and fertilizing.
Fellows is constantly rotating its displays. For example, the Gardens planted 41,900 bulbs last year that were on display this spring; the same must be done for the annual flowers.
All of that work must be done by hand.
Upkeep aside, workers also interact with visitors and teach programs.
Staffers’ efforts are supplemented by seasonal workers – seven now – and a legion of volunteers – some 350, according to MetroParks officials – who contribute thousands of hours of work each year.
Many volunteer hours were contributed by participants in the Master Gardener program, the cancellation of which this year caused an outcry from some community members.
Participants in the program, which started 30 years ago, learned about gardening from Fellows staff members and were required to volunteer in the Gardens before graduating. Sources say the program drew 10 to 24 participants at a time, all of whom had to volunteer 40 hours.
MetroParks officials insist the program was canceled this year due to low attendance over the last few cycles. Some community members, however, contend that it was due to the dismissal of staff members who led the program.
MetroParks officials say the plan is to make some changes to the program and bring it back next year.
Aside from the Master Gardener class, there is a discrepancy as to how many volunteers Fellows has lost since the staff restructuring.
MetroParks officials say they have received notice from eight people who do not intend to volunteer anymore. Other sources insist the number must be higher.
“I’d be surprised if it’s only eight,” said Paul Hagman, president of Friends of Fellows Riverside Gardens. The organization tracks volunteer hours each year, and Hagman said they have certainly noticed a decline this year.
“There’s certainly been a lull in volunteerism,” he said, but added the group has noticed a rebound recently.
“A lot of people were deeply hurt by the changes throughout the park,” he said. “But we’re seeing some members return.”
The recent furor also has affected donations to the gardens and membership in the Friends organization, Hagman said, adding he expects those numbers to rebound by the end of the year.
Overall, Hagman said he is not worried about standards.
“I don’t think Friends has a concern that the staff is unable to keep up with things. I think it’s true that the gardens can use some extra hands. ... But that’s always been the case,” he said. “The difference we’re seeing this year is, I think there has been some reduction in volunteer hours ... but I don’t think the gardens has degraded in any way.”
He added he commends the Gardens’ remaining staff members, a sentiment expressed by all parties.
“They’re rising to the challenge that’s been presented to them,” Hagman said.
Some community members have expressed concern the gardens is in danger of losing its status as a botanical garden.
MetroParks officials adamantly deny that possibility. Fellows does not require any formal accreditation to function as a public botanical garden, MetroParks officials said, but rather is a voluntary member of the American Public Gardens Association. The gardens meets all criteria to be part of that group, Pratt said.
Pratt worked as Kaiser’s assistant director for one year before Kaiser’s position was eliminated. When Pratt was hired by Kaiser, he said, the plan was that he would take over the director job – someday.
“We’re in a transition. We’re doing our best,” he said, acknowledging the challenge of taking over as gardens director.
In the midst of that transition, it seems that everyone can agree on one point: their desire to see the gardens prosper.
“This is a fantastic place,” Pratt said. “It’s the jewel of Youngstown, and I recognize that. It’s my full intention to make this place shine.”