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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

It’s hard to make concrete plans

Jennifer Sudick Staff writer

Jason Kelly has been in the landscaping business for years, but he’s never seen anything like this.

Kelly, the owner of Applied Landscaping Concepts in Coeur d’ Alene, is struggling to guarantee work due to the continued shortage of cement, a crucial ingredient in the making of concrete.

“It’s been hard going,” he said. “I definitely have lost money.”

Kelly joins a number of area landscapers and concrete providers who have been affected by the international cement shortage that hit the nation this spring.

The Portland Cement Association reported that demand for cement in the United States increased nearly 7 percent in 2004; the association’s June report said demand increased another 7 percent in the first quarter of 2005. Strong residential and commercial construction and increases in the prices of lumber and steel are behind the record demand, the report said.

Applied Landscaping Concepts’ status as a smaller residential-project business means Kelly sits at the bottom of the waiting list when it comes to getting a portion of the already limited concrete supply. Kelly said he snags a few cubic yards from local contractors if he can, but otherwise, he has to tell his customers to wait.

“I don’t even order it anymore,” he said. “It’s upsetting to people. I find it quite ridiculous myself, with the amount of building that’s going on in the general vicinity.”

Tom Freeman, owner of CDF Landscape, a landscape-architecture design firm in Coeur d’Alene, said he has to call a week in advance for his concrete orders.

He blamed the concrete problem on mild weather this winter, saying the lengthened construction season didn’t allow local concrete manufacturers to build up their inventories. Now, with an overflow of orders due to heavy construction, concrete firms are importing material from other western states, spurring a spike in the price. Freeman said he’s raised his prices an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent to make up for his higher costs.

He said the shortage also has affected his project schedules. Workers “can’t get concrete when they desire to have it. The project sits on hold until that opportunity exists,” Freeman said.

He added that concrete manufacturers are getting creative with their mixes, increasing additives so that they require less cement. He said it’s not possible to decrease the cement content for larger projects such as retaining walls, but it’s possible for smaller projects such as sidewalks.

Fred Ogram, principal landscape architect for Abbotswood Design Group in Hayden, said he has seen changes in design requests by clients because of the concrete shortage. He said his firm has been reducing the use of design elements requiring local concrete and replacing it with other materials.

“We have had clients request that we do not use concrete if at all possible, so as to not stall their project based on availability or increase the project cost,” Ogram said.

Mark Murphy, president of Spokane-based Central Pre-Mix Concrete Co., said the company is shipping in cement from Southern Oregon, Canada and the Puget Sound area at a significant cost.

“We’ll get cement from wherever we can,” he said. “We’ve been passing on the extra costs to customers.”

Jack Jones, CEO of J.J. Concrete in Coeur d’ Alene, said the limited supply of local concrete hasn’t hurt his business, even though prices have increased dramatically. He said he sold concrete for $57 per cubic yard this time last year, but now charges $87. He said the shortage has hit the United States particularly hard because few concrete manufacturing plants have been built nationally in the past 10 years.

“It’s like gasoline — you are going to buy it no matter what,” said Jones, who has worked in the local concrete industry for 16 years.

Murphy said road construction projects, such as work on Interstate-90 and the Green Street reconstruction near Spokane Community College, require large volumes of concrete, which makes it hard for concrete firms to fill smaller residential orders. He said although prices have only risen slightly since initial hikes this spring, he doesn’t see an end to the concrete shortage anytime soon.

“Our industry isn’t used to it,” he said. “We just have to deal with it at this point.”

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