Originally created 03/18/03

Businesses feel blow of gas increase



ATHENS, Ga. - Over the past few months, Gail Gentry has watched as the natural gas bill for her laundry business has risen sharply.

Ms. Gentry, who co-owns New Way Cleaners with her brother, Henry Griffeth, said they have done their best to pare expenses, mainly by cutting off the boiler when it's not needed. Most recently, the owners agreed to take a pay cut, but rising natural gas prices remain a problem.

The bill for February was $3,800, compared with monthly bills in the $2,000 range before recent price increases.

"I'm still sitting here wondering, 'Holy mackerel! How are we going to stay in business and pay this kind of money?"' Ms. Gentry said.

Business owners throughout the nation are lamenting the rise in fuel prices that began several months ago.

They said the increases are eating already-thin profit margins and threatening the economic viability of their businesses.

The increases have been particularly harsh for dry cleaners and laundries, businesses that collectively run hundreds of washers, dryers and presses dependent on natural gas.

"The cost has definitely affected me in the profit-and-loss category," said Robert Costa, the owner of Maytag Home Style Laundry, also situated near the University of Georgia. "It's having a tremendous impact."

If a recent report by Georgia Natural Gas is any indication, there is no apparent end to the increases. Last week, the No. 1 marketer in the state announced natural gas prices as being at their highest levels in more than two years.

"Wholesale natural gas prices increased 61 percent in the last month alone," said the company in a written statement. "Higher prices are occurring throughout the country in both regulated and deregulated markets."

Gas marketers blame recent increases in wholesale prices, which now top more than $1 per therm, a measurement of heat.

"As wholesale prices go up, it increases the price we pay as well," said Terry Redman, a spokeswoman for Georgia Natural Gas. "That's hard for people to understand sometimes."