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Economy, water rules batter Tampa Bay landscapers

Red Wagon Landscaping and Maintenance owner Isaac Gonzalez mows a lawn on San Miguel Street in Tampa. He is educating his customers on how to adjust to the new watering rules.

BILL SERNE | Times

Red Wagon Landscaping and Maintenance owner Isaac Gonzalez mows a lawn on San Miguel Street in Tampa. He is educating his customers on how to adjust to the new watering rules.

TAMPA — Like many business owners trying to survive the recession, Isaac Gonzalez takes every step possible to "operate lean."

He keeps his overhead low, delays buying new equipment and spends more time on customer service.

For Gonzalez and other landscapers, the start of spring marks the beginning of their busy season. If they don't cash in now, landscapers could spend the rest of the year playing catchup.

This year, the industry faces a triple threat. The weak economy has already reduced the clientele of many companies. Now, stringent water restrictions brought about by the drought have Gonzalez and others innovating so their businesses don't dry up.

"Sometimes it means going a little extra step to demonstrate to the customer how much you appreciate their business," said Gonzalez, who owns Red Wagon Landscaping and Maintenance in Tampa. "It costs a lot of money to replace a customer once you lose them."

The latest restrictions, which went into effect Friday and last until the end of June, limit Tampa Bay Water customers using sprinklers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties to four hours of lawn watering a week on properties less than an acre and eight hours a week on properties larger than an acre.

Homeowners within the city limits of Tampa are under even tighter rules, with a ban on sprinklers and hand watering allowed one day a week.

Luly Socias plans to hand water her grass and continue to use Gonzalez's services. The economy has affected her family, she said, but not to the point where lawn maintenance isn't a priority.

"The (economic) future is not as bright as it used to be," said Socias, who lives in South Tampa. "But I think we can cut out a lot of other things before I cut out my lawn service."

• • •

March and April are typically the busiest months of the year at Cypress Creek Landscape Supply on Florida Avenue in Tampa.

Spring usually brings a constant work flow of loading mulch, plants and sod onto landscape companies' trucks, said Jim Pasek, the store's manager.

But this year is different. Landscapers who used to spend several thousand dollars a month at the store rarely show up. Three semitrailer trucks used to deliver loads of sod every week, but now the store only buys a few pallets at a time.

Business is down 35 to 40 percent from a year ago, Pasek said, due mostly to the declining economy and housing slump. And now landscapers have a new worry: tougher water restrictions and the drought could kill the lawns and plants they maintain.

"I have a lot of customers coming in wondering what's going to happen to their customers' lawns," Pasek said. "Everybody's just hoping it rains."

Even as his lawn browns in Pasco County, Pasek thinks the new restrictions are fair. The region's 15 billion-gallon reservoir is essentially empty, and the three-year drought has regulators urging water conservation.

"I'd rather let my plant die than not be able to take a shower or brush my teeth," Pasek said.

Patrick Lauteria, vice president of Florida Irrigation Supply, said the restrictions are too harsh.

Lauteria said Florida Irrigation Supply, which operates in Tampa, Brandon and Clearwater, is installing fewer sprinkler systems than in the past. But once regulators lift restrictions, he predicts a spike in water use because people will have to replace dead sod and plants.

"And then," Lauteria said, "What do you think is going to happen? They're going to have to water the c--- out of it."

• • •

Landscapers in each of the bay area counties under tight water restrictions are taking steps to keep their businesses afloat and their customers' lawns alive.

Ray Resnick, owner of Land Crafters of Clearwater, puts fertilizer micronutrients into his customers' irrigation systems. He also checks for breaks and leaks to make sure the sprinklers run efficiently.

Cypress Creek Landscape Supply in Tampa and Sod Farms of Pasco offer customers Zoysia sod. It's more drought resistant and survives winters better than St. Augustine grass, experts say.

Sales are down 60 percent from a year ago at Sod Farms of Pasco, so the company lowered its prices and offers spray services as an incentive, said general manager Frank Balogh.

Isaac Gonzalez said he'll continue to do free favors for his regular customers. He can't afford to lose any more business.

"You just go ahead and absorb it," he said, "because you want to keep the customer happy."

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

Economy, water rules batter Tampa Bay landscapers 04/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 1:11am]
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