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Drought claims Pike Nursery
Norcross business files for bankruptcy
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ATLANTA -- The historic drought gripping the Southeast has forced a well-known Atlanta nursery to file for bankruptcy in what is perhaps the first major corporate casualty of the drought.

Pike Nursery Holding, a popular nursery that employs more than 750 people, said Wednesday the lingering dry conditions drove it to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Norcross-based retailer opened its first store in 1958 and now has 22 locations in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina. It calls itself the nation's largest independently owned garden center, and it's now the most prominent casualty of the record drought.

Wayne Juers, a Pike vice president, said the company planned for heavy water restrictions since June, cutting expenses and deciding against hiring the 200 seasonal employees it usually contracts in the fall. But he said low rainfall and a September order banning outdoor watering across North Georgia was too much for the company to overcome.

"It caught us a little bit off guard. Home owners started turning on homeowners," said Juers. "And if you're planting pansies out there, they think you're a criminal."

Georgia landscapers, plant nurseries and other "green industries" have had to lay off thousands because of the drought, particularly after the state banned outdoor watering through the northern half of the state. More job cuts are likely if the state announces additional water restrictions.

Some 14,000 employees have lost their jobs in urban agriculture, an industry that includes landscapers, sod farmers and nurseries, according to an online survey by the Urban Agriculture Council.

"It's what we've been saying now for a few months - the drought's impact is huge and it's firmly centered on the shoulders of our industry," said the council's Bret Bowlin. "I don't expect this is the last you'll hear. I'm sure there will be more."

Pike chief executive Scott Schnell said the company has secured $11.75 million in financing to help it operate during the bankruptcy, and company officials sound optimistic the company will rebound when the skies finally open.

"We will get water," said Juers. "All we need is a little bit of water to fill up the lakes. We're very hopeful for the spring."

But Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association, said there's little hope the industry will bounce back soon. "This is just the beginning of the economic fallout," she said. "It's going to continue week by week, month by month. And I don't think we'll recover from this until at least the third quarter of 2008 - even with rain."