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Bloom back on nursery sales, but overall economy hard to judge

May 08, 2010|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU
  • Lois Grogan of Hagerstown picks out begonias at Lovell's Nursery Inc. on Leitersburg Pike in Hagerstown.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Jon Snavely is seeing customers buying lawn benches and arbors that they walked past last year.

Kurt Lovell is laying in brick paths that interested few homeowners last year.

And Ollie "Chuck" Ball is planting roses and a red cedar in the backyard of his Hagerstown home and putting a little white picket fence around two new bushes out front.

Signs that the economy is starting to improve?

Might be, according to Peggy Dalton, an economics professor at Frostburg (Md.) State University.

Facts and figures are reliable indicators of an economy's condition, but there are ordinary things that help to show what's going on, too, Dalton said.

"When times are bad, people do not plant," Dalton said. "When times are good, you start seeing plants on people's porches."

Neither Snavely nor Lovell, each of whom owns landscaping and nursery businesses north of Hagerstown, was certain whether a brightening economy or merely this spring's sunnier weather is the reason for the modest rebound they're seeing.

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"The good news is, this year we had a rotten winter, people were housebound, so they were really chomping at the bit to get into their yards," Snavely said. "And throw into that the nice warm weather early in April, and they've just come running in."

"So what gets the credit? Is it the economy is now doing an upturn or is it weather-related?" Snavely asked.

"It's probably a little bit of both," Lovell said.

And Hagerstown homeowner Ball?

Ball said he is just doing what he's done his whole life. He seeks out discounts, even on the plants he loves to put in the ground, regardless of the economy.

Only these days, Ball said, most shoppers he meets seem to be just like him.

"A lot of people have been doing what I'm doing -- budgeting the budget," he said.

Some indicators

Whether things in the area are getting rosier -- economically speaking -- is hard to judge.

In Washington County, consumer spending increased to $111 million in February, the most recent month for which such figures have been calculated. That was higher than January's $106 million, but lower than the $116 million spent in February 2009.

As for unemployment, the county's rate improved to 11.1 percent in March, the latest month for which such data are available. In February, the rate peaked at 11.9 percent.

With 7,509 people still out of work here, the March rate still was Maryland's third highest. And it was higher than the 10.3 percent unemployed in Washington County in March 2009.

Construction, especially residential, also was looking stronger in the county in March.

The number of home sales also increased, although both the median and average prices continued to fall as foreclosures and short sales still dominate the market.

Home sales are a major key to the health of the rest of the economy because homeowners can make large purchases -- or not -- in many economic sectors, from furniture, to appliances, to lumber, to swimming pools, to lawn tractors, to landscaping and, yes, flowers and other plants.

But the recent surge in home sales is tied largely to comparatively low interest rates on loans, the low-price pressure of distressed sales and the federal tax credits for home buyers.

With those credits off the shelf now, officials in many businesses are waiting to see whether the economy has gained enough strength to power on, or whether the nation's 29-month-long recession still is in control.

Down to earth

For those in the plant nursery and landscaping business across the nation, the past couple of years have been tough.

Do a Web search for "Nursery, landscape businesses recession" and you can find stories reporting troubles in such firms in states such as Florida and Tennessee, where the housing markets have been hit hard.

There also are stories about landscaping businesses in places such as Ohio where plant and landscaping sales are beginning to climb again.

Snavely, co-owner of Snavely's Garden Corner Inc., and Lovell, co-owner of Lovell's Nursery Inc., both off Leitersburg Pike, are competitors who faced a lot of the same pressures as the recession dug in.

Now, both are seeing a rebound.

Neither is certain it will last beyond this spring's string of warm sunny shopper-busy weekends.

"If you have really good weather in the spring, it's going to lead to a lot of really good sales," Lovell said. "If you have rainy weather on weekends, it's not going to lead to much."

Last year's soggy spring didn't help.

"We were looking at cold and damp and threatening and on and on and on, and so that really compounded the economic concerns that were already around," Snavely said.

"It was a rainy spring last year," Lovell agreed, "but overall for the year, it (the problem) was definitely the economy."

At Lovell's, overall sales "were probably off 30 percent" during 2009 compared to those in 2007, which was the industry's last good year, Lovell said.

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