Economy

Stutzman’s future uncertain

In a bad economy, few businesses hurt like landscapers, and Stutzman’s Nursery, Garden Center & Landscaping is no exception. After several years of struggle to pay bills on time and maintain proper insurance, at the beginning of March the Village issued Stutzman’s an order to vacate the Village-owned property on U.S. 68 north. According to the notice, business owner Gary Stutzman had until March 31 to remove almost 25 years of materials, plants, structures and a business identity from the land. However, this week, the Village gave the business until the end of April to leave the premises.

The Village has postponed action regarding the business for nearly a year, partially to give the owner a chance to arrange his finances, Village Solicitor John Chambers said in an interview last month. But after continued lapses in lease and utility payments that spanned as many as four months, and failure to provide evidence of liability insurance for the property, the Village chose to issue notice of eviction.

“We’ve worked diligently and talked seriously with Gary for over a year now,” Chambers said. “But there comes a point, especially as stewards of the public funds, where it’s incumbent upon us to take more commercial steps to protect the assets of the Village.”

For much of the life of the business, Stutzman’s has had success. Stutzman and his then-wife Julie Ruopp opened the garden store on Dayton Street in 1985, which grew in 1995 to occupy the 20 acres on 68 and more than $175,000 of inventory, he said this week. The business continued to enjoy steady growth until 2002, when the couple entered a divorce. Since that time, Stutzman has owned the business alone and, facing a steadily declining economy, continued to accumulate debt beyond his means.

Since Stutzman’s 10-year lease with the Village expired in 1995, the business has operated on a monthly lease agreement. According to Stutzman, he has gotten behind on the rent for the past couple of winters, due to declining summer business, but has always managed to catch up again. And though he currently owes the Village about $1,000 in utility bills (after paying a four-month backlog of rent last week totaling $1,600), he is selling everything but the driveway to raise money to get himself clear of a large business debt and get back to doing what he loves, running a landscaping center.

Stutzman has always had basic insurance coverage for the property, but last spring the insurance company dropped liability coverage for the dozens of animals that were sheltered on the property, he said. Though most of the animals were later relocated in the fall, Stutzman said that he plans to close this week and keep the remaining animals (a potbellied pig and some chickens) until he can afford to open the garden center again, at which point he will have the animals insured. He still invites customers to contact him for sales by appointment by e-mailing him at stutznsy {at} earthlink(.)net.

Either way it works out, Stutzman said last week, he isn’t leaving — at least not this month. He has $200,000 invested in gravel roads, curb cuts, and infrastructure on the Village’s formerly unimproved agricultural land. And he has put at least $70,000 into a permanent structure, a septic system and two leach wells on the property. Besides the improvements he made, which he feels he should be compensated for if forced to leave, he also has eight greenhouses, trees, bridges and heavy landscaping materials that would take at least four months and a steady work crew to move.

In addition, under the burden of heavy debt, the property on 68 is currently Stutzman’s home.

“I’m living here,” he said. “My plan is to get caught up on utilities and rent and get an extension with the Village. I’m a positive person. I don’t think it’s hopeless.”

Since the business encountered trouble last year, about 100 friends, former employees and other villagers have pitched in to help maintain the center. YSHS student Colby Silvert, who has worked at Stutzman’s since he was 10 years old, helped organize two large work parties in the fall to move the animals out and manage inventory for the coming winter. He has continued to help with the clearance sale during the past several weeks as well. Personally, Silvert said last week, he is committed to helping Stutzman because of his hard work ethic and his unconditional generosity as an employer and community member.

“We all have respect for what Gary has done and what the family has done with Stutzman’s,” Silvert said. “It’s been like a second school for me out there, and there was no second thought about giving back.”

Other villagers have come up with ideas about how to work with Stutzman to share the property for multiple uses, such as for community gardening or to establish an educational permaculture site with display gardens and seminars. One resident is even considering holding a music festival on the property this summer.

Patti Dallas sent a letter to Village Council members this week informing them of the community garden effort she and a group of other interested people are talking about with Stutzman. The letter urges Council to postpone the eviction enforcement until the group has had a chance to find leadership and get better organized.

“Because of all the improvements that Gary has made on the property, it is an ideal place to cultivate gardens. We will also be looking at ways that funds can be generated, so that the Village can be compensated for use of the land,” the letter states. Yellow Springs Youth Council members have expressed enthusiasm for the idea, and villagers interested in helping to lead the effort may contact Dallas at 767-7884.

Though he is cautious about the logistics involved in maintaining a shared space, Stutzman is open to working with villagers to take full advantage of the property, much of which is currently unused. And he also knows that while he begins work on area landscaping jobs to raise money for the business, he won’t have a lot of time to maintain or use the space anyway, he said this week. So cultivating short-term or perhaps long-term uses for the property seems beneficial for the community, he said.

Given the Village’s options, it doesn’t make sense to Stutzman to abandon the property and let it go fallow. Leaving it in its current state would result in a big weedy mess that would attract coyotes and likely also complaints, he said.

“It seems logical to have someone in place there,” he said.

Silvert believes that’s the way it started, and that’s the way it should continue to be.

“No matter what happens, I think Stutzman’s will continue in one way or another,” he said.

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