Four prospective buyers contacted show owner Duane Kelly on Friday just after he announced that he and his wife, Alice, would retire, leaving the show to wither and die if someone didn't offer to buy it and run it. The potential buyers include an advertising agency and individual entrepreneurs.
"That's a really good sign," Kelly said of the initial interest. "There's a lot of wealthy people who have a passion for gardening. I'm sure I'll be hearing from a lot more. I'm hoping somebody will recognize that these are community assets."
Kelly, who produced his first Seattle garden show in 1989, is selling his Seattle-based Salmon Bay Events, which runs the Seattle show as well as the smaller San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.
Together, the garden shows are the second- and third-largest in the country, following only the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Snohomish County gardeners and plant professionals cringed Friday at the thought of losing the annual event.
"For gardeners, this is like canceling Christmas," said Sandy Schumacher, director of the Evergreen Arboretum & Gardens in Everett. "The Northwest garden calendar begins with the flower and garden show.
"I can't think of one place that provides so much education and inspiration in a matter of days and can only hope that rather than cancel, they consider scaling it back."
Kelly, 59, started trying in October to find buyers willing to take on the show, but nothing promising materialized.
Time appeared to be running out for Kelly, who said his top reasons for getting out of the business were his second calling as a playwright and a desire to spend more time with his wife.
"I really do feel that it's time to move on," Kelly said. "I am tired. Running these shows, it's show business. It's very intensive."
Attendance at the show has decreased in recent years from an all-time high of 84,000 in 1999 to 54,000 in 2008.
Sponsorships have been down significantly, too, from $450,000 for both shows in 2008 to $200,000 for this year's shows.
"Everybody's' been cutting marketing budgets," Kelly said. "That's a cyclical thing. That will come back."
Kelly said he'd like to negotiate an asking price between $1 million and $2 million for a business that he said would have been worth as much as $8 million a decade ago.
Filling more than 6 acres of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, the annual show is a retail opportunity for many garden businesses during one of the slowest times of year for sales. More than 300 exhibitors sign up for most shows.
It also has served as a showcase for local garden designers' creativity with more than two dozen full-size display gardens, featuring towering evergreens, daffodils, tulips and flowering trees forced into bloom as well as stone pathways, sheds, reflecting pools, hot tubs, fountains and furniture.
Hap Wertheimer of Everett said she would sorely miss the annual inspiration for her work as a landscape designer.
"It's like one more kick to the gut," Wertheimer said. "I think we all look for a glimmer of sunshine and signs of spring that help us feel hopeful during this bleak financial downturn as well this bleak time of year."
Jessi Bloom, who founded N.W. Bloom EcoLogical Landscapes in Mill Creek in 2000, hopes a buyer can come forward to take over the show.
She designed large display gardens for the Seattle show in 2006 and 2007. She was looking forward to a garden she had planned for the 2010 show.
"It's pretty sad," Bloom said. "I'm really hopeful someone will come out of the woodwork and want to scoop it up."
Bloom worries about the educational opportunities that would be lost without the display gardens and more than 100 seminars led by experts.
"It is a big community," Bloom said. "For businesses, it means new opportunities with new customers. It means networking with like-minded people. It means learning. There's all kinds of things that the show brings."
Lynne Thompson, manager of the Great Plant Picks program based at a private garden in Shoreline, is especially concerned about how the organization would reach the public.
Each year, the program uses the event as a debut for its annual list of recommended plants, along with colorful posters and booklets with growing tips and resources. The program distributed more than 20,000 booklets at the show in both 2007 and 2008.
"This will have quite an impact on Great Plant Picks," Thompson said. "It's our largest opportunity to meet the Northwest gardening public and to share our educational materials with them."
Kelly, meanwhile, said he's serious about writing. "Every single day of the year" at 4:30 a.m., he writes for at least one hour.
"I've been writing plays for 10 years. I'm working on my fourth play," Kelly said. "I'd like to spend more time on my writing. It's a craft."
Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Almost show time
The Northwest Flower & Garden Show is scheduled to run Feb. 18-22 at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in downtown Seattle. “Sustainable Spaces. Beautiful Places” is the theme for the show, featuring 26 full-scale display gardens, more than 100 free seminars by experts and 300 market exhibitors. Admission at the door is $20. Tickets purchased in advance are $16. See www.gardenshow.com or call 206-789-5333 for more details.
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