SANDUSKY - In the dead of winter, as icy winds whip the Lake Erie coastline, Tom Speir spends most of his workdays in a balmy oasis of palm trees, banana trees, and brightly colored flowers.
Mr. Speir and a staff of three permanent employees at Sandusky's municipal greenhouse tend tens of thousands of plants that give the city the look of a tropical paradise each summer. When tourists arrive in town to visit Cedar Point, go fishing, or relax on the beach, they're greeted by palm trees swaying gently in the breeze along Washington Street and in mounded gardens in Washington Park that include a working floral clock.
All of the plants for those areas and four dozen other city parks are grown in the city's 10,000-square-foot greenhouse on Elm Street.
"This is where it all starts," Mr. Speir said, motioning around the warm, damp facility, where flats of impatiens, iresines, chrysanthemums, and dwarf grasses rest under the purplish glow of ultraviolet lamps. "The sense of pride in this is much greater because we're creating something the public appreciates."
Sandusky has won national recognition for its displays of tropical plants and floral murals, including last year's first-place showing in the America in Bloom Awards for cities between 25,001 and 50,000 people.
"For a city of our size, we have a pretty extensive program in horticulture," said Mike Pisarsky, the city's superintendent of horticultural services.
It's also a program with a rich history. The city has photos from the early 1900s showing shrubs and beds of flowers in downtown park areas.
"There's always been tropical plants in our parks downtown," he said. "That's been part of our tradition, and the greenhouse allows us to maintain it."
Joan Van Offeren, director of the Erie County Visitors Bureau, said Sandusky's palm trees still turn heads among first-time visitors shocked to see tropical foliage along the Lake Erie shore.
The city plants about three dozen palm trees each spring along Washington Street, a boulevard-style thoroughfare that passes the Erie County Courthouse, and in two nearby parks.
While the tall trees get the most attention from visitors, Mr. Speir and his staff spend a lot of time tending to thousands of much smaller but equally important plants, such as a dwarf tropical variety known as Alternanthera. Mr. Speir said the greenhouse grows more than 50,000 of the plants each year in such vibrant hues as yellow, pink, red, and white.
Alternanthera plants form floral bedding used for commemorative designs in eight landscaping mounds. The tiny plants spell out the names of local businesses, form shapes such as ship anchors and carousel horses, and, in one instance, spell out the date on a floral calendar that is changed daily.
Rick Choquette, a greenhouse employee who designs the mounds, said the floral displays are popular with local firms and civic groups that want to mark anniversaries. "There's quite a waiting list for the mounds, from 8 to 12 years," he said.
The commemorative mounds traditionally have been free, but the city plans to begin charging $500 per season this year. In addition, residents will be able to have a floral message marking birthdays and other personal milestones emblazoned across a "celebration mound" on Wayne Street for $125 a week this year.
The horticulture program also brings in revenue by renting out palm trees and ferns during the winter for weddings, business events, and trade shows. The organizers of the Cleveland Mid-America Boat Show, which opened Friday and runs through Jan. 23, rented 12 palms and 24 ferns at a cost of $150.
While summer is the peak season for floral beauty in city parks, the horticulture staff works to keep them scenic through the fall and into the early days of winter.
When the palm trees and other tropical plants retreat to the greenhouse, workers plant kale, a crop of ornamental cabbage, and string more than 30,000 lights in Washington Park to decorate for the holidays.
City leaders began sowing the seeds of Sandusky's floral beautification in the waning years of the 19th century.
According to city records, City Council appropriated $50 on Sept. 8, 1890, to send a committee to Chicago to study ways to improve Sandusky's municipal park. Exactly two weeks later, council passed a resolution "for the appointment of a special committee of three in connection with the superintendent of parks to build a greenhouse for the propagation of flowers and plants."
But for unknown reasons, nearly 20 years passed before the city took concrete action to make the greenhouse a reality.
On March 16, 1908, City Council agreed to issue $10,000 in bonds to erect a greenhouse on a parcel bounded by Franklin, Monroe, and Elm streets in central Sandusky. Council awarded a construction contract that June, and the greenhouse opened the next year.
The wood-trimmed facility stood there until 1974, when the city decided the aging greenhouse had deteriorated beyond repair. The current glass and red-brick greenhouse was built on the same site that year.
"I'm just glad they had the wherewithal during hard times to come up with the money for a new greenhouse," Mr. Speir said. "It's withstood the last quarter-century pretty good."
Some of the city's palm trees are almost that old. Each year starting in mid-May, greenhouse employees take the trees outside and plant them along Washington Street and in Facer and Veterans parks.
About three dozen Phoenix, Fago, and Kentia palms remain outside until mid-October, when the threat of frost forces the horticulture staff to return the trees to the greenhouse.
Mr. Speir points out a 10-foot-tall Phoenix palm that sits inside a 55-gallon drum, even when it's planted outdoors. Being contained has kept the 20-year-old tree from outgrowing the greenhouse, he said.
"We feel it's a good economic value to keep them up," he said. "It's better to have your own greenhouse than to buy them every year."
All told, the city spends about $300,000 a year to operate the greenhouse and decorate its parks, a cemetery, and a municipal golf course.
Mr. Pisarsky said the money spent on floral beautification pays off by helping to attract residents and investment to Sandusky's downtown.
"People will drive out of their way to visit green space," he said.
Mark Litten, executive director of the Greater Erie Marketing Group, an economic development agency based in Sandusky, said the city's landscaping efforts make it easier to persuade tourists to visit again.
"Putting on a good face means that those people will be happy staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants and riding the roller coasters at Cedar Point," he said. "It makes it enjoyable to spend time in our city, and they'll want to come back. ... I've lived in several areas of Ohio, and nothing comes close to the beauty of our downtown in the summertime."
Contact Steve Murphy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6078.