Coping with brown winter: Businesses stay positive despite weather

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

SPORTSHAUS IN WEST BRIDGTON — owned by Marlise Libby, (pictured), and her husband, Phil, offers all sorts of winter wear and equipment, at their store on Route 302. (Ackley Photo)

When there is hardly any snow on the ground in the Lake Region, there is a ripple effect on area businesses of all kinds — ski areas, cross-country skiing facilities, snowmobile sales and rentals, ice fishing bait and equipment shops, restaurants, department stores, ski shops and snow removal firms.

Jim Mains, a Bridgton native who serves as executive director of the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said last week, “The low snow total does have an overall effect on the economy — it does have a ripple effect here. We still have a vibrant local economy, but there is an element that is missing — the element of tourists coming to the area and taking advantage of what we have to offer.”

According to Meteorologist Craig Miller of WGME 13, “The two largest events affecting our weather so far this winter are La Niña in the Pacific Ocean and something called the North Atlantic Oscillation, or NAO.”

During a La Niña, Miller said, “The ocean waters of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal…For us in the northeast La Niña may cause us to be drier and warmer, however much of that depends on what the NAO is doing.”

The NAO impacts the location of the jet stream, and as a result, “When the NAO is in its ‘positive phase,’” it causes the jet stream “to stay to more to our north, keeping us warmer,” said Miller

So, while that may be good for keeping heating bills low, it is not good at all for businesses that rely on cold weather and snow.

Timing is everything

“It’s a timing issue,” Mains said. “We are off to a slow start. Snow will come later in the season, and they will come for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and downhill skiing. Shawnee Peak Ski Area is known for their grooming. People don’t realize the conditions are good. They (Shawnee Peak) make sure you have a quality experience, no matter what’s on the ground. Conditions will be good, when they get here. We’re confident that, even though we’ve had a later start, they will come. We’re maintaining a positive attitude.”

WAITING FOR THE ICE TO FORM — on the many lakes and ponds in the Lake Region is Larry Scholz, (pictured), owner of Unc’L Lunkers Bait & Tackle Shop on Gage Street in Bridgton. Scholz, whose business typically benefits from the lack of snow, is feeling the effects of the warm weather that has prevented ice to form so that those who ice fish can safely access local waterbodies. (Ackley Photo)

“Being an area where there are seasonal businesses,” said Mains, “businesses have to anticipate slow periods, and with proper planning, businesses will come through and be here in the long run. Local business owners are a unique breed — dedicated and hard-working — they will persevere, in the long run.”

Mains said the Lake Region is continuing to entice more visitors to come here.

“In our western Maine mountains region,” he said, “we are drawing more and more people to our area from the coast, because we’re truly four seasons here. We have something to offer in all four seasons, and that’s a big plus!”

Contrary to recent printed reports, downhill skiing in the Lake Region is alive and well.

Local ski areas do put a lot of effort into providing top conditions for alpine skiers.

So, when people in southern New England or the Portland area don’t have snow where they live, they sometimes assume that conditions here in the Lake Region aren’t optimal for downhill skiing. Nothing could be further from the truth, local ski area operators say.

“The skiing itself has been good,” said Ed Rock, vice president and general manager of Shawnee Peak Ski Area. “We’ve been able to make a lot of snow, and the surface area has been very good. We’ve opened up more terrain — about 80 percent of our trails are skiable terrain.”

If they see it, they will come

On the other hand, Rock said perception is everything, for some people.

“The product is there,” the veteran ski area manager said. “But, the truism is accurate — if they don’t see it in their backyard, they don’t realize it is as good as it is. We need a little help from Mother Nature, to create a bit more interest. Whether it’s skiing, guys snowplowing driveways and parking lots, or snowmobilers, it’s all interrelated. In our case, business has been okay, but we’re not seeing the numbers (of skiers) of last year.”

There is a bright side for Shawnee Peak Ski Area, according to Rock.

“Based on pre-season sales and indicators we go by, there is a certain pent-up demand,” he said. “If we get snow this weekend, we expect to be busy. We certainly will continue to make snow, and hopefully, Mother Nature will kick in on us.”

Mount Abram’s general manager, Kevin Rosenberg, agreed with Rock that things are looking up in the ski area business.

Mount Abram is owned by Matt Hancock, a businessman from Casco.

“Christmas week last year (2010), we had a snowstorm and were 100% open,” Rosenberg said. “This year, the last measurable amount of snow was Thanksgiving weekend. So, we have been putting our best efforts in making snow. We have three shifts a day making snow. We’re doing all we can to make winter happen!”

Like other business operators, Rosenberg said he was keeping tabs on the progression of today’s (Jan. 12) forecasted snowstorm.

“This storm looks like it’s tracking inland, with a potential snow event of six to 10 inches,” Rosenberg stated. “Martin Luther King weekend looks to be a strong weekend — we have a snow event on Thursday, a carload promotion on Friday, and the long weekend looks to be great, with fireworks on Sunday night!”

Yet, other business owners who rely on cold weather, ample snowfall and safe ice conditions, don’t have the same story to tell as the ski areas do.

Many are suffering the consequences — and when it doesn’t stay cold very long or snow very much, the worse off they are.

Tom Gyger, owner of Five Fields Farm, offers 27K of cross-country ski trails.

Gyger said he needs at least “a foot to 18 inches of snow, in order to come out with six inches of packed snow.”

“I compact the snow, so it has stiffness,” Gyger explained. “I can’t do it with just six inches of snow.”

Gyger said, like others we talked to, that perception is key.

“We could have snow up to our knees,” said Gyger, “but if there isn’t snow in Deering Oaks in Portland…” He said that factor has been the bane of the ski business “since wax was invented.”

John Marr, who, with his wife Sally, owns Town & Country in East Conway, N.H., that sells snowmobiles, woodstoves, propane and other products, said the poor economy is the main cause of the downturn in business for them.

As for the lack of snow on the ground, Marr said, “Oh, it’s affecting everybody, not just us. This year certainly is worse than last year, and last year was bad.”

“The biggest problem is the economy — not the weather — that’s just the double whammy,” said Marr. “The economy is the culprit.”

Asked if he is looking forward to having more snow fall during the months of February and March, Marr stated, “We’ve seen that before. The sun is high and it’s warm and the stuff melts. We need it now, when it’s cold, so we can groom it.”

Said Marr, “We’re just struggling by with all the other businesses  — we’re all in the same boat.”

From last winter to this winter, how is business?

“There’s no comparison,” said Marlise Libby, who owns Sportshaus with her husband, Phil, that is located in West Bridgton near Shawnee Peak in the wintertime and at its Main Street location during the spring and summer. Sporthaus sells and rents ski equipment and also has a wide selection of winter gear for all ages. “Business is down, and the skiing is absolutely fantastic,” Libby said. “Everyone’s coming off the hill saying it’s wonderful skiing, but nobody’s coming up here to enjoy it.”

“Last year was good — we had a pretty good year,” she said. “But, this year — not so much. We’re here — the doors are open — come on in, because the skiing’s great!”

“They’re already testing equipment for next year, and we’re going to Denver in two weeks to do the buying for next year,” Libby added. “We’re optimistic for next year!”

Bryan Williams owns the Village Tie-Up Market & Deli on the shore of Long Lake in Harrison Village and caters to customers who come in off the road, off the lake and off the snowmobile trails. Yet, so far he hasn’t been seeing many people ice fishing or snowmobiling.

“Our economy is based on money changing hands,” Williams said. “If a guy’s income is to plow snow and make a living and they’re not working, he won’t be buying fuel, or a sandwich or a coffee. NAPA is relying on that person to maintain his plow truck, but he can’t afford to, if he’s not working. Everything just slows down and comes to a standstill. It’s not just tourism — it’s everybody — we’re all connected to it — residents and nonresidents alike.”

As for how his business has been lately, Williams stated, “We’re probably flat to maybe a little down. In February, we’re coming up to the critical school vacation week. When everything just slows down a bit, that’s not good for anybody.”

Pam Freeman, who manages the Bridgton Renys, said several of the wintertime products they sell are not selling at all or as well as in past years.

“The sale of snowshoes is down, as one example,” Freeman said. “We’re all looking forward to some snow. It would be great to have people come in and buy snowshoes. And boots — we have a lot. And winter coats — finally, just recently, there’s been cold weather, and coats and boots have picked up a little bit. It’s been quiet.”

What about the favorite wintertime activity of sledding downhill?

“Sleds — normally, we are out of those several times a month — and now, we don’t need another delivery. Other than people buying sleds at Christmastime, sales have been down,” said Freeman.

Jeremiah Gill Maintenance is in the business of snow removal, but like others, Gill is feeling the ripple effect of both the down economy and the lack of snow.

“It’s everywhere — gas stations, restaurants, hotels and motels,” said Gill. “People don’t realize — they’ll ask me, ‘Why do you charge $25?’ It involves weeks and weeks of preparation and planning. I have a huge investment (in the equipment), and there’s commercial plowing insurance — and the price of steel has gone way up — and anything that breaks is repaired with steel. I have three sanders — once you put salt in them, they start rusting. There is maintenance on the tractor to haul salt and sand. Another example is my trucks have six wheels, and it gets expensive to put on studded snow tires, in times of no snow or ice. It’s a lot of investment and cost, each year. So, when you don’t make something, it’s hurtful. When it does snow, you’ve got to be ready to go!”

Darrin Rogers, who co-owns the property maintenance business CareTake America with his brother Kevin, echoed what Gill said.

“In terms of business and plowing — forget about it,” said Rogers. “I’ve plowed maybe four times — most of my accounts are per storm. You’re dying, if it doesn’t snow. I have five or six accounts that are contract — they’re the only thing keeping me going. We sort of rely on roof shoveling, too — the guys are sitting there twiddling their thumbs. I laid off five people. One of the guys supplements his income by fixing snowmobiles, and he’s done very well — but he’s getting no calls, because they’re not riding them. Other than that ­— it is what it is.”

The lack of snow, said Rogers, “really has slowed things up.”

Larry Scholz, owner of Unc’L Lunkers Bait & Tackle, depends on having safe ice on the area’s lakes and ponds, to insure he’ll have a prosperous winter season.

“It’s not the (lack of) snow that’s so bad, or effecting it, as the lack of ice,” said Scholz. “We had a warm December — Moose Pond (ice) just caught on — Long Lake is still unsafe — but the little ones (waterbodies) are okay.”

Scholz said when there is a lack of snow, it typically helps his business of catering to those who ice fish.

“When that happens, people are looking for other things to do besides skiing or snowmobiling or anything else,” stated Scholz. “But, like everyone else says, if you’re in your yard in Connecticut where there’s no snow or ice, you figure there’s none in Maine.”

Yet, this year, the ice on lakes and ponds is almost non-existent, so Scholz can’t rely as much on the ice fishing enthusiasts.

How has his business been, compared to last year?

“Compared to last year, it’s off,” Scholz said. “And, it’s perception, too.”

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