Just behind Coconut Joe’s Restaurant on West Bay Road, there’s an oasis of trees and other flora that are now used primarily in the spectacular gardens of the Darts’ private residences nearby and Caymanian Elke O’Donnell is the person who manages the operation.
Next month will mark 15 years since Elke O’Donnell began working for one of the Dart Group of companies here in the Cayman Islands, making her one of its longest-standing employees.
She now manages Arboretum Services Ltd., a Dart Enterprises subsidiary that many people have probably never heard of. That entity, however, not only manages the Dart family’s private collection of plants, but has also been involved in many projects and organisations that have a wider impact on Grand Cayman.
As an organisation committed to environmentalism, Arboretum Services Ltd. has been actively involved in plant conversation efforts, from rescuing significant specimens to propagating threatened species.
O’Donnell started her journey with the Dart Group as Elke Feuer, a young woman from Savannah who was working at Kirk Office Equipment and never imagined she’d spend 15 years working for what amounts to a nursery operation.
“I always knew I would be a manager, but I didn’t think it would be this kind of business, or that I would be involved in projects,” she said.
Originally, O’Donnell was hired by another Dart Group company, Cayman Shores Development Ltd, but she transferred over as manager to Arboretum Services Ltd. in 2005. She was originally hired as an administrative assistant for Sandy Urquhart, the landscape designer extraordinaire who played an integral role in the design of Camana Bay and other Dart Group projects.
O’Donnell, who ultimately took over project management side of Urquhart’s role when he left the Dart Group to start is own firm, said she learned a lot from her former boss, who took her under his wing for project management very early in her time with the Dart Group.
The first project she worked on – albeit in more of an observation capacity – was the seawall on Seven Mile Beach that started at the old Coral Caymanian property and ran north in front of the Darts’ private residences, West Indian Club and Coral Beach Cottage. That was followed by the landscaping project on the portion of Esterley Tibbetts Highway that abuts what is now known as Camana Bay.
Next came the projects to create the spectacular private gardens for Bob and Ariane Dart and then Ken and Jan Dart, followed by those to create the East End and North Side district parks. She also worked part way through the Dart Family Park project in George Town before she took maternity leave.
After she returned from maternity leave, the projects have been confined to those on the nursery facility itself, as well on the Darts’s family properties, which included a complete redesign of the West Indian Club Garden.
Although her job requires here to do “a bit of everything – from running the office to the crews in the field” O’Donnell said it’s been the project management side of the business that is the most satisfying for her.
“I absolutely love project management.”
O’Donnell also has to manage a busy office with 30 staff members and although she said her job is challenging, it’s also interesting and every day is different.
“There’s always something happening, always something new,” she said. “I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never been bored. I don’t know many people who could say that about their job.”
Unlike some Dart Group employees, O’Donnell has had a lot of face-to-face contacts with the Darts over the years and she said she finds them “very down to earth”.
She also thinks the Darts are socially and environmentally responsibly, having seen not only their generosity in establishing the district parks, but also the support Dart Enterprises and Arboretum Services gives to many organisations, including the National Trust of the Cayman Islands, Cayman Wildlife Connection, Cayman Wildlife Rescue, the Grand Cayman Orchid Society, the Garden Club of Grand Cayman and other non-governmental organisations, along with its collaborative efforts with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment.
In the future, O’Donnell said she’d like to see Arboretum Services involved in more community outreach initiatives.
“One of the things we’ve had to put on hold is branching out into the community,” she said, noting that years ago Arboretum Services used to have school children visit their facility for an educational tour.
“I think that’s one thing I’d really like to do again.”