At the Project Grow annual meeting of membership, held Thursday evening at the Nature House at Leslie Science Center, news of a possible organizational arrangement with Matthaei Botanical Gardens led to an impromptu expansion of the board of directors to include two additional members. In addition to Catherine Riseng and Dustin Underwood, who were already on the slate for election, Royer Held and Kirk Jones were elected to the board. Project Grow’s mission is to make organic gardening accessible through the community and it does so most visibly through garden plots available at 14 different sites located throughout the city.
At the meeting, Project Grow board president, Devon Akmon, announced that Karen Sikkenga, associate director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens, had approached Project Grow with a proposal that the two organizations form a more robust relationship. The exact nature of such a relationship, said Akmon, was being evaluated by an exploratory committee of six people, which included Held and Jones. The evaluation, stressed Akmon, would involve a close assessment of Project Grow as an organization, which would ultimately make it stronger, whether the outcome resulted in a merger, a partnership, or no new relationship with Matthaei, which is part of the University of Michigan.
Reaction among the roughly 20 assembled members to the word “merger” was uniformly negative, with one member saying, “That would make us a part of U of M. So, no, no, no.” Some kind of partnership, however, was something people in the room seemed more prepared to contemplate. And they were keen to see Held and Jones take a role as board members in that contemplation, not just as members of the exploratory committee. With the agreement of Akmon, as well as verbal support from board members Damaris Suffalko and Terre Fisher, a decision was made to expand the number of board members from eight to 10, which reversed a board decision made prior to the annual meeting to fix the number of board slots at eight.
A more robust arrangement between Project Grow and Matthaei would build on collaboration already in place. That collaboration includes Matthaei as a gardening site for Project Grow gardens as well as a combined plant sale in the spring. Matthaei runs the cash register for the combined sale, but separates out proceeds from plants tagged as Project Grow plants, issuing a check to Project Grow.
Asked what motivated Matthaei to seek a more robust relationship with Project Grow, executive director of Project Grow, Melissa Kesterson, attributed it in part to the existing collaboration between the two organizations, noting that Bob Grese, who is director of Matthaei, was a longtime gardener at the Zion Lutheran Church Project Grow site, before construction plans by the church led to its elimination.
Further, said Kesterson, Matthaei saw their overture as a way to offer Project Grow a financial safety net – the city of Ann Arbor restored $7,000 of funding to Project Grow this spring after previously having eliminated it. The city’s contribution represents about 13% of Project Grow’s overall budget of $55,000. And finally, Kesterson said that public gardens represented a part of Matthaei’s vision for its own community outreach, and that Matthaei did not want to duplicate what Project Grow was already doing.
Mention of the financial safety net prompted a question from one member about whether the financial clout of Matthaei was something that Project Grow needed in order to survive. Kesterson replied, “We’re very healthy. We’re doing great.” Acknowledging that the organization was currently solid, Akmon stressed that the organization’s budget needed to grow.
Akmon said that a time frame for the assessment of the overture from Matthaei will be a matter of a few months.