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Horticultural society lays off half of staff

Nonprofit blames drastic reduction on financial woes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 17, 2008

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, once expected to play a prominent role in building parkland over the Big Dig, cut more than half of its staff last week, a spokesman said yesterday.

The cuts, announced to society members Friday, will reduce the number of paid staff at the nonprofit organization from 30 to 12, said spokesman Joe Ganley.

The society's executive director also resigned his post May 14, following a board inquiry into his candor about financial problems at the design firm he once owned, Ganley said.

In explaining the cuts, board president William McDonough cited the society's "ongoing financial challenges," in a statement released to the Globe.

He declined an interview. Ganley would not say how much money would be saved by trimming staff, and he would not detail the latest problems.

"I don't think they want to discuss the nature of the financial difficulties, other than to say it's a difficult time right now for all nonprofit organizations," Ganley said.

The society has long been plagued by financial and management problems. In 2002, budget difficulties forced it to sell thousands of rare books from its collection for $5.45 million.

During Big Dig planning, the society was designated to develop three prime blocks of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway downtown.

The group tried to raise money for an elaborate Garden Under Glass near South Station.

But the plans never got off the ground, and the society was reduced to taking a supporting role with the design of those three blocks.

The society paid for a design and has been assisting in planting for the past few months, while primary responsibility was turned over to a conservancy formed to oversee the Greenway, officials said. Ganley said that the primary work, including an irrigation system, is complete and that the society would fulfill its obligations.

At one point, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was poised to give the organization $2 million to help develop the greenway site, but both Ganley and Mac Daniel, a Turnpike Authority spokesman, said the society never received the money.

Daniel said officials are confident the conservancy will ensure that the three blocks on the greenway are well maintained, a view echoed by Rob Tuchmann, cochairman of Mayor Thomas M. Menino's completion task force for the Greenway.

"We don't believe that would adversely affect those three parcels," Tuchmann said, referring to the layoffs. Assisting the conservancy "is all they're doing right now," he said.

Peter Meade, chairman of the conservancy, said the society has done a good job in its current role.

"I expect that there will be some more planting as the year goes on," he said. "It looks quite nice."

Meanwhile, the society has begun a search for a new executive director following the resignation of Bob Feige, Ganley said.

Feige, hired as fulltime executive director in September after getting the job on an interim basis last April, could not be reached for comment.

In January, the Globe reported that Feige had been jailed in 2007 after he failed to pay $66,190 in back wages owed to dozens of former employees at a design company he once owned.

The payment obligation was part of a deal with the attorney general's office.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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