New AHS leader aims to make River Farm a “vibrant community”
Seven months into her tenure as president and chief executive officer of the American Horticultural Society (AHS), Suzanne Laporte is optimistic about the national nonprofit gardening organization and its home at River Farm.
It was just over a year ago that AHS’ board of directors — reduced to a team of five due to the Sept. 30, 2021 resignation of five other board members — announced that River Farm was no longer up for sale and that it would remain the nonprofit’s headquarters and continue welcoming outside visitors. Since then, the organization gradually has reopened the property to the community, found a marketing- and business-savvy nonprofit leader in Laporte, begun beefing up its board and property-focused staff, reinvigorated its volunteer program to help enhance the property’s appearance, and begun planning for the future — all while celebrating AHS’ 100th anniversary in 2022.
Next year is a notable milestone for the organization as well: the 50th anniversary of AHS’ presence at River Farm. While AHS’ board and staff haven’t yet finalized how and when the landmark event will be celebrated, they are excited about doing so with the community, said Laporte.
Making the property more accessible to community members is one of Laporte’s top priorities. Thanks to legislative support from Senators Scott Surovell and Dave Marsden, and Delegates Paul Krizek and Mark Sickles, an amendment to the fiscal year 2022 Virginia budget was passed earlier this year, reallocating $2 million in funds previously secured by Krizek and Senator Adam Ebbin to a grant program designed to improve public access at River Farm. AHS is standing up a committee of staff, board and community members to advise on how that grant money should be used, said Laporte, noting it could mean future accessible parking, restrooms and trails. According to the state budget amendment, the funding can also be used for shoreline stabilization, passive use water access and riverbank restoration, and the elimination of invasive plant species.
One community member participating in the committee is Katherine Ward, president of the Wellington Civic Association and co-chair of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations. Ward praised the relationship between AHS’ new leadership and the surrounding community as open and accessible.
“Community members are once again enjoying River Farm as part of our immediate community, and I know that others in the Mount Vernon District are enjoying the property as well,” she said.
More locals and tourists may have the opportunity to spend time at River Farm in the future. Laporte said it’s her goal to have the property open seven days a week and for extended hours, enabling more people to visit the gardens along the Potomac River. “Right now, families with school-age children and working parents are missing out, and that’s a shame,” she said.
Earlier this month, AHS relaunched weekend visitation hours at River Farm on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but more staffing will be required for the property to remain open longer and on Sundays. In her short time at River Farm, Laporte already has overseen the hiring of two people dedicated to running the property — a managing director of property operations and a River Farm grounds manager. They joined the chief horticulturist who was hired shortly before Laporte joined AHS.
“That a real investment we’ve made in River Farm itself,” said Laporte.
To keep operating and maintaining the 25-acre property, historic manor house and other aging outbuildings, Laporte recognizes that additional funding is needed — potentially in the form of an endowment. As a step in that direction, AHS is weighing the possibility of a capital campaign in 2024. The nonprofit is also on the hunt for a new director of philanthropy to oversee capital campaign planning, as well as major gifts, annual giving, planned giving, foundation grants, corporate sponsorships and fundraising events.
AHS also is still moving forward with the prospect of a conservation easement at River Farm, according to Laporte.
“We’re consciously being slow and careful with regard to an easement because it’s permanent and restrictive,” she said. “We want to do it right and find a way to preserve River Farm in perpetuity. It’s a board priority,” she added.
The Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT) has been in talks with AHS about a possible easement over the past year and has had some good, productive conversations toward that goal, according to NVCT Executive Director Alan Rowsome, who also serves as chair of the Save River Farm Committee. He said an easement would be a “big financial winner” for AHS in terms of Virginia tax credits and that NVCT could work with the organization on an agreement that includes building envelopes and other allowances providing some level of flexibility to AHS in exchange for its relinquishment of development rights.
“Suzanne and the board are doing a great job,” said Rowsome. “We’ve been patient knowing that they have to build back the organization. I still have a lot of positive feelings about our getting there, and I think there’s a great, constructive relationship between us to get us over the line.”
Indeed, if there’s one thing that has surprised and impressed Laporte over the past several months, it’s been the level of community support for River Farm. That support recently manifested itself at the sold-out AHS Gala — “our ‘we’re back!’ moment” as Laporte called it — and through an invitation from Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck to get reengaged with the Mount Vernon Tourism Task Force. This past spring, the task force helped launch the Potomac Banks tourism brand in Southeast Fairfax County as a way of marketing the area’s wealth of historic, cultural and natural attractions.
“We need to be a part of it,” said Laporte, adding that she recently attended her first meeting at the Workhouse Arts Center with representatives of other local attractions.
The American Horticultural Society’s River Farm is located at 7931 East Boulevard Drive in Alexandria.
Note: the author is a former employee of the American Horticultural Society at River Farm.