A group of people, some wearing bright yellow vests, ambled down Traffic Way in Arroyo Grande on Tuesday morning, stopping here to admire flowers or there to touch the dark green needles of a redwood.
Two members of the group — judges with the America in Bloom program — hadn’t visited Arroyo Grande before. They were in town early this week to tour the city, which is participating in the national awards program for the seventh year.
“It’s been very impressive to see how many have come forward as leaders in this community,” said judge Katy Moss Warner of Windermere, Fla., president emeritus of the American Horticultural Society.
Arroyo Grande is competing in the 12,001-18,000 population category against Washington, Mo.; Holliston, Mass.; and Catskill, N.Y.
The city boasts a robust volunteer program called Arroyo Grande in Bloom and has won its population category three years in a row, received three outstanding achievement awards and been inducted into the program’s “circle of excellence.”
But as the volunteers and judges will tell you, participating year after year isn’t about receiving awards.
“The communities aren’t necessarily competing to win,” said judge Melanie Menachem-Riggs of New Rochelle, N.Y. “They’re trying to find ways to improve themselves.”
Every year, the judges leave suggestions that the nonprofit Arroyo Grande in Bloom group uses to further improve the city’s appearance, such as incorporating more public art, or changing a city sign to make it more visible.
“What I love is that they give us a blueprint for the next year,” said Mary Giambalvo, who serves on the steering committee for Arroyo Grande in Bloom. She said she hopes other cities in San Luis Obispo County become interested in the program, “because we could all use some beautification and environmental awareness.”
The America in Bloom judges focus on six criteria, including floral displays, the city’s heritage preservation efforts, its urban tree program, landscaped areas such as parks, environmental efforts and overall impressions. As part of their tour on Monday, the two judges visited the Cold Canyon Landfill and the Lopez water treatment facility, among other spots.
On Tuesday, they walked around the Village of Arroyo Grande, stopping to admire fire-resistant plants in a demonstration garden next to a Five Cities Fire Authority station on Traffic Way.
Mary Hertel, who oversees landscaped areas for Arroyo Grande in Bloom, led the judges around the garden, stopping to pluck a weed from the gravel path. Her son, Daniel Hertel, designed an information kiosk for his Eagle Scout project; another Scout, Brian Mandara, installed a bench for his project in March 2010.
“I think this is fabulous,” Warner commented as she paused in the garden. “It’s obviously telling an important message about how to landscape in this area.”