The green industry’s first member of U.S. Congress stands up for small business

PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY DAHLKEMPER.
Kathy Dahlkemper is the Green Industry’s first member of U.S. Congress.

When Dan Dahlkemper, owner and president of Dahlkemper Landscape Architects and Contractors in Erie, Pa., was being interviewed for this article, he was cleaning up a couple feet of water from a freak July flood resulting from a slow-moving thunderstorm that came down with a vengeance along the southern shores of Lake Erie. Without flood insurance, he has already had to invest $40,000 of his own money just for the immediate clean up. Eight of his employees lost their vehicles and his business has been closed for about a week.

He also recently lost his most valuable employee, his wife Kathy, who is now the U.S. congresswoman for the 3rd District of Pennsylvania covering the northwestern part of the state, including the city of Erie where his company is headquartered. For 11 years, the Dahlkempers have operated the business, which his father established in 1955. Today, the company serves customers in New York and New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania. The company has 40 employees and $3 million in annual revenues.

Dahlkemper Landscape Architects and Contractors did the landscaping at this lakeside property in Erie, Pa.

Dahlkemper admits that during his wife’s transition to Washington, the business has been off a bit, but is now recovering. “It’s difficult to replace the contributions Kathy has made to our landscaping business,” he says. “She was integral to the day-to-day operations, serving as director of human resources and special projects. I’ve had to take on many of her responsibilities including marketing and business management.”

The Dahlkemper duo has always worked well as a team in their landscaping business. Dahlkemper calls himself the visionary with the big ideas and creative thoughts, and his wife Kathy the pragmatic one, able to take his ideas and implement them. “When one of us is down, the other is up,” he explains. “We cover for each other.”

Dahlkemper Landscape offers custom landscape design, landscape architecture and construction services, along with holiday lighting options to high-end clients. There are two registered landscape architects on staff to provide services such as site planning, commercial and residential development, bank stabilization and irrigation and erosion control solutions. With four construction crews, the company installs landscapes, paving and retaining walls, water gardens and drainage and erosion control methods. Landscape management crews are available for cleanup and mowing, tree care and trimming and fertilizing and disease control, as well as miscellaneous services, such as bulb planting, lawn aeration and deer protection. It operates with a 50/50 commercial vs. residential mix.

Kathy has always been a community and civic leader, spending her adult life working to improve the community through numerous projects including the development of the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park (LEAF) where she became director and vice president of the board of directors. Since 1997, she was responsible for securing over $2 million in public and private funding for the arboretum and coordinated daily operations including programming, marketing, fundraising, site management and collaboration with government, civic and private partners.

“Kathy never had the political bug,” explains Dahlkemper. “She was just always involved in high-profile environmental and educational projects to improve the community.”

In 2006, the Dahlkempers attended a high school fundraiser when a friend of theirs who was involved in local politics happened to mention that the Democratic Party was looking for a candidate to oppose the vulnerable incumbent of 14 years, Bill English. “Kathy laughed about it at first, but everyone we talked to thought it was a good idea, except Kathy’s mother,” jokes Dahlkemper.

Finally confident, Kathy announced her candidacy for the U.S. House in October 2007. This was to be her first run for political office. Her main campaign platform included the support of a systematic withdrawal of troops from Iraq, health care coverage for all American children, advocacy for the environment, finding ways to fight climate change and promoting the development of cleaner energy sources.

On the local level, she knew the region where her company serves its customers, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, was where there had to be a focus on preserving local employers, and manufacturing jobs in particular, in order to survive economically.

She went on to raise the money necessary to fund her campaign, and won a four-way Democratic primary by 20 points with 44 percent of the vote. In the actual election, she went on to defeat the incumbent with a narrow margin of 51 to 49 percent.

A ranking member of the House Small Business Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on Regulations, Health Care and Trade, U.S. Rep. Dahlkemper serves on the subcommittee on Rural & Urban Entrepreneurship, allowing her to have a voice for small businesses throughout the district. “As a small business owner, I proactively sought this committee because it is important that I do all I can to help our region retain and grow the businesses that we have and work to help attract new businesses to our district,” she says.

Additionally, U.S. Rep Dahlkemper has been assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture, serving on the following subcommittees: Conservation, Credit, Energy & Research and Department Operations, Oversight, and Nutrition and Forestry.

The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) is pleased to see one of its members now in high office for the very first time. It recently held a fundraiser for her re-election during their annual Legislative Day on the Hill dinner in mid-July.

“We are encouraged that U.S. Rep. Dahlkemper has already been appointed to some very key committees on small business and the environment,” says Tom Delaney, PLANET’s director of government affairs. “She understands what it takes to run a small business and has worked directly on environmental projects. These committee positions will allow her to address local and national issues of significance for our industry.”

U.S. Rep. Dahlkemper’s local notability hasn’t been a factor for increased business for Dahlkemper’s company.

“We already had a longstanding high-profile recognition in the community prior to Kathy’s election to the U.S. Congress beginning with my father’s and uncle’s company formed in 1955,” explains Dahlkemper.

There’s also a business downside to being in the political spotlight for the Dahlkemper’s company. Not surprisingly, they’ve lost customers due to their public political affiliation. They also have to be extremely careful when working with and going after municipal contracts for fear of being perceived as “politically favored.”

The landscaping at this residential property is courtesy of Dahlkemper Landscape Architects and Contractors.

The Dahlkempers are striving to set a good example in the political arena for being green with their own business. “Since we are in an environmental business, our industry should be leading in that area,” says Dahlkemper. Their company is leading the way with hybrids in its fleet, subscribing to IPM practices, preserving trees and managing stormwater runoff in its landscape designs.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.