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5/4/2003

Pain in the grass

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Fingers all over the St. Vrain Valley are crossed, hoping that the cool, wet spring bodes well for businesses whose stock and trade involves water.

So far, it seems to be a mixed bag.

“On a whole, when the drought seemed to be at its worst — the end of last year into early this year — it was really quite scary,” said Danielle Vetter, owner and landscape architect for Longmont’s Silver Lace Landscape. “Last year, it was a little bit tight — a lot more competition out there. Now, we’re experiencing this surge of calls where we weren’t last year.

“I think the state of the economy and the drought kind of weeded out some of the competition.”

Vetter said her company does strictly residential landscaping, and that 90 percent of her business comes from new construction. She said her company’s bottom line also was affected last year because people would call and haggle on price — figuring the drought provided them with a bargaining chip they wouldn’t normally have.

“I would take $500 or $1,000 off if we did the whole thing, but we’re not doing that now,” Vetter said.

For someone whose profession involves tearing up lawn space to put in patios, Dave Becker got a lot of extra business last year because of the drought.

“Last year was awesome,” said the owner of Becker Stonewall and Patio, a one-man business based in Niwot.

Becker has been in landscaping since 1982 and has been running his stonemasonry business since 1994.

“My grandfather did it in Germany, and then he did some of it in Iowa,” he said. “Then my dad went into banking, so it skipped a generation.”

Becker said his one-of-a-kind approach to his work generates a lot of word of mouth, his sole form of advertising. By May of last year, he was booked for the rest of 2002.

“I just think that today, when a lot of the landscaping companies come in, they’ll give you a functional patio,” Becker said . “It’s fine, it’ll work, but all the artistic quality is lacking, and that’s where I come in.”

He said several customers last year had him replace parts of their lawn with custom patios, and in some cases put in additional Xeriscaping.

Speaking while installing a walkway for a Boulder home this week, Becker said business — going back to winter — has been way, way down.

“This year has been my slowest year ever,” he said. “It’s been so freakin’ slow — I don’t know if it’s the economy or what.

“You’d think with all the burned out lawns people would want to replace them with patios, but I don’t know ... January through March, there was nothing. But I think that was the economy more than the drought.”

As a whole, the sod industry took a bath in 2002. Lafayette, for instance, went so far as to ban new sod installation for residential lawns.

According to an industry trade association, by September, Colorado sod companies had laid off at least 50 percent of their workers.

Longmont’s C&J; Sod Farm, however, was the exception to the rule.

“Actually, sales last year, as far as I was concerned, were way above normal,” said owner Jim Ourada, who has been in the sod business since 1978. “As far as the sales, the drought did not affect us at all last year.”

Sales weren’t affected, but the weather did hit him in another way.

Ourada said his farm has two main sources of water: the James Ditch and the Nelson Ditch. “And up until last year we rented water from the city of Longmont,” he said. “Last year, they wouldn’t let any out.

“What had been costing me $500 from the city last year was costing me $5,000 on the open market.”

Ourada said that new construction accounts for 90 percent of C&J;’s sales, with the remainder coming mainly from homeowners who want to “re-do” their yards.

“I expect it to be down a little bit this year because the amount of new homes were down,” he said. “It just follows that as the building goes down everything that goes along with it goes down.”