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America in Bloom (AIB) recently hosted its annual symposium in St. Louis, Missouri this September, where towns from all over the US met to share their garden successes and collaborate. AIB is an organization that promotes the beautification of cities and towns through flower and plant installations that elevate the spirit and character of their communities. Our resident Crescent Garden Rep, Barbara Wise, interviewed some AIB board members to gather their perspectives on AIB’s current gardening efforts and the challenges they expect in the future.

What is AIB all about?

Leslie Pettinger, AIB Past President: So, for communities, it starts out as a beautification program, and we all understand the power of the flower. Beautiful containers make people smile and inspire pride in their community. While it starts out as a beautification program it becomes so much more, you educate your community, you share your best ideas that may work for your community and others across the country, you learn, you bring in economic development. AIB is an overall well-being program.

Jack Clasen, AIB President: A community will usually hear about us through the parks department or a volunteer group. We visit the city and the community will show us around, giving us the highlights of what makes their community a great place to live. We give them an outsider evaluation, suggestions for improvements. They take it from there. We have a number of communities that have returned for 10, 15, even 20 years. The longer a community sticks with the program, the more they get out of it.

Delilah Onofrey, AIB Founder: We want to elevate how great plants are. We want people to value plants, not just as some luxury you don’t need, but as a cost-effective tool we can use to revitalize towns. Our plants happen to be the vehicle to broader community revitalization.

Crescent Garden at AIB 2022

Barbara Wise representing Crescent Garden at the 2022 symposium alongside America In Bloom members.

What would you say have been AIB’s biggest successes?

Delilah Onofrey, AIB Founder: For me the longevity of AIB has blown me away. It’s not just about planting once and walking away. Once the town and the people see what can be done, once they experience the results, the enthusiasm for the project becomes contagious. It shows people care and acts as a catalyst, so as new businesses start popping up it becomes about “Of course, we need the best plants in the shopping center”.

Leslie Pettinger, AIB Past President: I think an ongoing success story is that every time a community participates in a symposium, and they meet with their advisor and share their best ideas with other communities, they have that aha moment of “Oh my gosh, that would work for us”. They go back home. They get their community enthused. They implement. They come back next year. The success story is about learning something new, taking it home, and starting the cycle all over.

Jack Clasen, AIB President: Whether it is a more beautiful community because of the floral displays or the landscaping, towns tell me their community pride has increased. They’re planting more trees. They’re thinking more about heritage. They’re thinking more about partnerships with other communities. They’re working together where they never did before. That to me is a big success. We are all volunteers. We get nothing out of this except the enjoyment of seeing communities get better.

AIB Symposium 2022

Plant installations help make small towns more vibrant and alive.

How did COVID impact AIB’s approach?

Jack Clasen, AIB President: I think COVID put our approach on hold. They key to our program are the personal visits by our advisors and the fact that communities get to look at themselves through a different set of eyes. It made us realize we cannot simply be an online program.

Leslie Pettinger, AIB Past President: We had two years that we didn’t meet in person. We still did the National Awards Program, communities did it virtually. But the piece we missed was the getting together. We’re back finally.

Delilah Onofrey, AIB Founder: COVID seemed like a good time to focus on developing self-assessments and certifications, which we didn’t really have before. It was a useful moment to pause and evaluate.

Plant installations in Downtowns.

As pandemic restrictions have eased, people are spending more time in their downtowns.

What challenges do you think small towns face? How can people help their towns improve and grow?

Jack Clasen, AIB President: My view of small towns is that they are either improving or declining. There are the communities that will work together for improvement and progress, and there are the communities that will just continue to argue and sink. Communities need to set priorities and think about what makes people stay there and what would encourage a person to move there. What are people looking for? People are looking for a vibrant town. An active downtown. People can see when there is excitement in a town.

Leslie Pettinger, AIB Past President: We’ve found that people are spending more time in their downtowns, they’re getting out a lot more now. Some of those small towns are actually growing because the people that used to commute from small towns to large cities are now working from home. So, small town populations are growing and thriving, and businesses are doing well. People can help their towns grow by volunteering, inspiring others to get involved, planting a plant, adopting a pot, and sharing in the good.

Delilah Onofrey, AIB Founder: We are seeing more regional competition as people decide which towns they want to live in as they work remotely. Ultimately this is where communities can collaborate with AIB, so we may help towns put their best foot forward in this crazy changing world.

City Plant Installations

Plants are the path to progress. A community that plants together, grows together.

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