You can count the tourists who visit during a summer, the T-shirts sold in stores, the diners who sample Chesapeake crab or raw oysters or imported lobster in the local restaurants.

But as Annapolitans are finding out this summer and fall, it's harder to measure the value of beauty.

As a flagging economy continues to cause residents and elected officials to tighten their belts, the City of Flowers by the Bay program that has adorned the brick-lined streets of downtown Annapolis with everything from petunias, impatiens and lantana to banana plants for more than a decade is under siege, and a few dozen merchants and residents are working hard to save it.

"I'd hate to think of this town without the flowers," says Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary's Jewelers on Main Street and a driving force behind the movement to preserve the program, which comes with a price tag of about $60,000 a year. "Take them away, and it would just be a different place."

Samaras, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, and dozens of private citizens are staging three fundraising events for the cause, the first of which, a $40-per-ticket social, was at the Naval Academy football stadium Friday.

The second, the Annapolis Tomato Festival, billed as "a full day of tomato appreciation," is slated for Sept. 12 at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville.

Those familiar with downtown Annapolis, at least as it has looked since the mid-1990s, know it as a quaint, brick-lined shopping and dining district that draws 4.5 million visitors a year, according to Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

For years, the city has been a magnet for national and international recognition. National Geographic, Forbes magazine and other major publications have placed Annapolis on Top 10 lists for beauty, green awareness and livability.

How much of that attention stems from 330-plus hanging baskets and street planters overflowing with flora is hard to say, but the bright colors the program weaves into a streetscape otherwise dominated by period-style brick and metal are hard to miss.

Hanging flower baskets are considered a good investment by many cities and towns, says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "People make decisions every day about where to visit, where to invest and where to retire based on what communities look like," he says. "A community with flowers and trees, and without billboards and shlock, will always attract more business than one that looks like everyplace else. Annapolis is a major tourist attraction precisely because it looks different and unique, and the flowers are part of the package."

What McMahon calls "return on perception" can be hard to quantify, though, when it comes to soliciting funds. Earlier this year, a few City Council members proposed terminating the city's involvement, which for years was $25,000 per year.

The Annapolis Business Association, a consortium of merchants, kicked in the same amount, with community leaders raising the rest independently.

When the political dust settled, the city had cut its investment to $10,000 a year, the ABA followed suit, and merchants and citizens were left to pick up the slack.

"We had two choices," says Samaras, a voluble man whose storefront windows look out on the water. "One, let the program die. Two, raise $40,000 to keep it going, and still more to help it thrive into the future.

"We've already built a nice little war chest," he says.

Over the years, Flowers by the Bay spilled out from Main Street. They now adorn Church and State circles, Calvert, Market and West streets, Ego Alley, and other places, and they've inspired other city neighborhoods to follow suit.

"It's contagious, and we encourage the contagion," says Mike Miron, director of the city's Department of Economic Affairs, who sees preserving Flowers by the Bay as a "10 on a scale of 1 to 10" in importance.

The expense is "a good investment, one of the smartest things they do downtown," said David Pommerehn of Annapolis, who was having an ice cream with his wife, Gillian, and daughters Adler and Ellis. "You need these kinds of things to make the city appeal to the tourists."

The mayor says visitors "always comment on the flowers."

How much is that worth? It's hard to put in dollars and cents, but "when the city has promotional photographs taken, they invariably include the flowers," Miron says.

Still, a lean economy sharpens the debate. Jessica Jordan Paret, president of the Annapolis Business Association, says the organization, like many feeling the pinch, has to make tough choices.

"We all love the flowers, but we felt that in a changing economy we needed to figure out ways to use our limited funds to directly impact [and] increase business in Annapolis," she says, adding that the organization - which lays out $12,000 a year on holiday decorations for the city - will target more projects that focus on the city's history.

To Samaras and others, though, it's as open and shut as a Venus flytrap. Every October, when Homestead takes the plants down just after the Annapolis Boat Show, he says it augurs the coming winter, and the last thing his city needs during a recession is a permanent case of the blues.

The business community, at least, gets it. Enough members have pledged support to build a base for the coming year, he notes, and the public should be glad.

"You may not always realize how the flowers make you feel," Samaras says. "But if they were gone, believe me, you'd notice."

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