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February 20, 2012 | last updated February 23, 2012 10:43 am

This season’s scant snowfall worries snow-reliant industries

Source: NOAA
Source: NOAA

It's almost an axiom in Maine. When the snow comes down, profits go up.

But amid another warm season, researchers still don't know at what point a lack of snow turns into an economic bust.

Maine's winter economy depends on snow and cold, particularly its rural economy, which soaks up cash from ski resorts, snowmobiling and snow removal. But the rule is as soft as new snow. Any link between weather and revenue seems destined to be anecdotal, with significant other factors intervening.

Managers of alpine ski resorts, snowmobiling operations and plowing companies agree on the premise.

"There's no question there's a direct correlation between weather patterns and how we're going to do economically," says Kathy Mazzuchelli, parks and recreation director for the city of Caribou, which offers trail conditions and other support to snowmobile tourists.

"I can tell you skier visits are down so far this season and that it's directly related to the conditions, even though they're very good and improving," says JoAnne Taylor, marketing director at Saddleback ski resort in Rangeley. "There's so many variables, there's probably not an equation" linking receipts to snowfall.

Overall industry data indicates at least $750 million changes hands annually in Maine's snow-related businesses.

The Maine Snowmobile Association says sledders bring in $350 million in a "good" season. The industry group SkiMaine says Maine ski areas generated about $300 million in 2011.

The private plow industry adds another $100 million a year, wrote Jonathan Rubin, a University of Maine professor of resource economics, in a 2011 report.

Much of what municipal plow operations cost in revenue is spent with local contractors. Rubin says that helps create jobs that otherwise would not exist.

And if it doesn't snow? Municipalities award their one- to three-year plow contracts in advance, regardless of snowfall amounts. A contractor lucky enough to hold a municipal plow contract will often see higher profits in years with little snowfall.

But no snow means no snowmobiling, and there's no arguing Maine is in a snow drought.

U.S. Geological Survey data show Maine's deepest snow on Jan. 5, 2010, was 29 inches, in Aroostook County. The minimum was 6.4 inches, in Falmouth. On Jan. 4 this year, the USGS surveyed 59 sites across the state and found only 16 had any measurable snow at all. Thirty-eight sites had no snow, with the deepest snowpack in the state a puny 6 inches.

"Unlike our friends in the ski industry, we can't make snow," says Bob Meyers, executive director for the Maine Snowmobile Association, which represents the interests of nearly 300 independent snowmobile clubs. "So it's always interesting."

Meyers says the amount of snow needed for snowmobiling isn't universal, depending in part on where a trail is and how many obstacles need to be covered, but he considers 6 inches a minimum.

As of mid-January, with the crucial New Year's Eve holiday already by the boards, only the western mountains, the Moosehead region and Aroostook County had that much coverage. Reports from snowmobile clubs in Fort Kent and Caribou indicate conditions have since improved significantly.

That business is down early in the season doesn't bother many in the snowmobile industry, who say the poor snow conditions are part of a three-year downward trend that coincides with a beaten-down national economy. But eventually, by mid-February of last season, northern Maine's snowmobile season picked up, Meyers says.

Late February to early March is considered the breaking point for Maine's winter industries, with the most annual snowfall historically coming in February, along with school vacation, "longer days, warmer weather and tremendous conditions," Mazzuchelli says, referring to the snowmobile season.

Data show overall snowmobile registrations last season down about 10% from the all-time high of 107,285 in 2002-03. The 90,892 registrations last winter were the lowest since what Meyers calls the "disastrous" 2005-06 season, the snowless one that prompted the industry and Maine's congressional delegation to successfully lobby for "lack of snow" to be included in the list of conditions for federal low-interest disaster aid.

Meyers says he's compared registration data with sales tax receipts and found no link. "People just find something else to do" if they have a snowless visit.

One thing skiers and snowmobilers contemplate is "the backyard factor" — the suspicion that it actually might be better for Maine winter businesses if it snows more in Boston and New York than in Carrabassett Valley or Greenville.

But the opposite could also be true. If it isn't snowing in the cities, people may not think about winter sports, and not make the long drive to Maine.

"If people are not in an environment that reflects winter, they assume it's like that everywhere else," Saddleback's Taylor says.

"Once the daffodils start blooming, they tend to forget about us up here," Mazzuchelli says.

The point was accentuated on a mid-January day as 7 inches of snow fell at Saddleback while a dreary mix of ice and rain fell nearly everywhere else in New England.

"It's very different where we are," Taylor says. "Today is a powder day here. I doubt where you're sitting you're thinking that."

The regional effect

Visitor numbers are notoriously hard to come by in the privately held ski industry. Resorts don't generally offer them, and SkiMaine usually releases skier-day figures only for the season.

Meyers says things so far this winter have been "moderately" down for sledders but "where it's busy, it's been very busy."

Snowmobiling's impact in Maine is regional, especially when gas prices are high. "Last year, some of the best conditions were south, in York and Cumberland counties," Meyers says, helping the industry there.

But it hurt northerners like Mazzuchelli. "If there's an equal distribution of snow," she says, "people are staying closer to home. Four-dollar gas certainly does have a direct bearing on what people can spend snowmobiling."

With Maine's northern and high-terrain snowpack steadily but slowly improving, boosters are encouraged. It snowed "white gold in great amounts" on a recent day, says Mazzuchelli, adding high gas prices, warmer weather and competition from the south weren't going to faze her.

"If someone's going to drive 12, 14, 16 hours to snowmobile in northern Maine," she says, "a daffodil isn't going to deter them."

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