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Mild weather hurts local businesses

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Posted on January 30, 2012 |
By Kyle Finck



MIDDLEBURY — Mother Nature has delivered Vermont an unseasonably tepid winter so far, leading business owners who depend on snow-related sales looking to the skies for signs of the white stuff.

“It’s been crushing for us,” said Mike Hussey, director of the Carroll and Jane Rikert Nordic Ski Center in Ripton. “Everybody is hungry to ski and just waiting for the snow.”

This winter’s bare mountains are a far cry from last year, when snowbirds enjoyed the third-snowiest winter in the state’s history, according to the National Weather Service. As of Friday, the Burlington area has only seen 10.1 inches of snow this winter, compared with 25.5 by this time last year.

On Thursday, all 50 kilometers of Rikert’s cross-country ski trails remained closed due to the warm weather and lack of snow. Even at its peak this year, only 25 percent of the trails were open. Hussey said that at this time last year, 100 percent of the trails were open.

Without the ability to produce man-made snow, Hussey said the Nordic Center’s revenues are down 40 percent so far this winter.

“When the snow’s been here, it’s been great. It has just been few and far between,” he said.

The dearth of snow has had a trickle down effect on local tourism.

“We could have a four star chef and no snow and people would be disgruntled, but we could have fabulous snow and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and people would love it,” said Tony Clark, owner of the Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen, which also is home to a Nordic ski center.

Clark, who has been in the inn business 41 years, said he can remember winters this warm in the past, but said the lack of snow this year is unusual.

“It used to be that people would make a reservation and then hope for snow, but nowadays, they look at the snow reports online and if they’re not good, they don’t make reservations,” he said. “There’s no snow, so there’s no visitors.”

With just one more solid month of winter ahead, Clark said the possibility of making up for lost business this winter is “doubtful.”

But Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, is more optimistic. He said a big turnaround this winter is “absolutely” possible.

“Usually we get some big storms in the mid to late winter,” he said.

Mayer said the key to turning the around the mindset on Vermont’s warm winter is changing the perception in major metropolitan areas such as New York and Boston.

“The thing is that there is good skiing right now, but people down in Boston and New York aren’t aware of it,” he said. “It isn’t so much the reality but the perception.”

Mayer said there are efforts to change the perception at both the state and local tourism level.

“Vermont’s commissioner of tourism and marketing is doing a huge email blast to get the message out that the skiing is good in Vermont right now,” he said. “We are also about to push a package we’ve created that pairs local lodging with tickets to the Snow Bowl.”

MAKING THE BEST OF IT

Local winter sports stores have been forced to emphasize different products for the mild temperatures, with fleeces flying off the shelves and down jackets going untouched.

“It’s been the winter that never got started,” said Jesse Haller, manager and guide at Middlebury Mountaineer.

The key to staying successful during this enigmatic winter, according to Haller, is diversifying.

“While we’ve seen a slowdown in all-around winter sales like skis and snowshoes, people are taking advantage of other aspects of our shop,” he said. “There’s definitely some silver lining there for us.”

Haller said that hiking has taken the place of snowshoeing and where people used to skate, they are now fishing.

“We have a very active community and people are finding ways to get outside,” he said.

On Merchants Row in downtown Middlebury, Skihaus has stayed afloat from preseason sales and loyal customers.

“Ski sales have been good because people came in anticipating that we’d have a winter like we had last year,” said co-owner Barbara Nelson.

Nelson’s business partner, Anna Boisvert, said that since the store orders its products a year in advance — next winter’s jackets have already been ordered  — it’s impossible to hedge against a warm winter.

“You can’t go with what you see outside,” she said. “If you based your buying on what was happening at that exact moment you’d end up shooting yourself in the foot. You have to just have faith that we live in Vermont and eventually it will get cold here.”

One person who isn’t praying for a blizzard anytime soon is Dan Werner, director of operations for the town of Middlebury. The temperate weather has brought a welcomed respite for the town’s operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Werner, who has been in charge of the town’s highway, water and sewer functions since 1999, said his road crews have used additional free time to get a jump on spring projects.

“We’ve been spending a fair amount of time tree trimming, which we wouldn’t have time to do otherwise,” he said. “The benefit to us is that we get to go outside and do some things we wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to do.”

But it’s not like the town is saving a lot of money because there has been less snow to clear, he said. His crews have been out on the roads laying down salt and sand after the numerous instances of rain followed by freezing temperatures, Werner said, which has added up.

And, on Friday with some snow forecast over the weekend, Werner cautioned that winter is still far from over.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “Usually the heavier snow storms are in the later part of the winter.”

Chuck Hobbs hopes Werner’s predictions come to fruition. He owns Hobbs Property Services, an all-around property and construction management company in Bristol, and he depends on income he earns from snowplowing.

“I’ve only been out plowing three times this year,” he said. “We do other property management but it’s been really tough to adjust.”

By the end of last January, Hobbs said he was thousands of dollars in the black. But this year, he hasn’t made a dollar plowing and doubts he will be able to get out of the red by the end of the winter.

“It would have to snow every day in February to make up for the lost business,” he said.

Haller, the Middlebury Mountaineer manager, summed up the popular sentiment of many in Addison County as he looked toward February.

“We’re eternal optimists and believe that at some point we’re going to get snow and people are going to want to click back into winter mode.”

Intern Kyle Finck is at kylef@addisonindependent.com.

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