No snow! Winter-oriented businesses are suffering

ADDISON COUNTY — A year ago at this time, Vermonters could look out their windows at hillsides blanketed in a foot of snow in some places. This year, that same view yields mostly brown ground, trees devoid of leaves and not a snowflake to be found. In past weeks, temperatures have risen as high as into the 40s and 50s.
That mild weather has perturbed outdoor recreationalists and business owners in many areas of Vermont that attract wintertime tourism, pushing back opening dates at some ski areas and limiting offerings at the ski areas able to open a limited amount of terrain.
Lodgings close to the mountains are feeling the affects, too.
In Hancock, dirt and grass still covered the slopes of the Middlebury College Snow Bowl on Friday morning. Snowmakers began blowing some of the white stuff on the front side of the mountain on Friday night and continued through the weekend. The small ski area plans to open a portion of its 17 trails in the week after Christmas.
“We have plenty of capacity, it’s just a matter of temperatures,” said Brett Rubright, the Snow Bowl’s snow school director.
The balmy weather has also forced the area to cancel the annual holiday program, a five-day series of clinics — with up to about 100 kids —that starts the day after Christmas. The 10 to 15 instructors that usually teach the program will be unable to work.
Until the ski area can run at full tilt, only about 10 Middlebury College employees are working on facilities upkeep. Once the season is in full swing as many at 40 full- and part-time employees will work in snow making, ski school, rental and lifts.
If snowmaking and temperatures stay in their favor, Rubright said he was confident conditions wouldn’t jeopardize other plans, including a January lesson series scheduled to start Jan. 1 and Middlebury College’s February graduation tradition of skiing down the Allen trail.
“It’s a little frustrating,” he said. “We all love to ski and a lot of our customers come from out of state and ski every year. We’ve been fielding a lot of calls from them, saying that they were looking forward to skiing. Even though we have canceled the program, they want to know what we have available.”
In Ripton, the Rikert Nordic Center maintains 55 kilometers of cross-country ski trails in the Breadloaf Wilderness, five of which are equipped with snowmaking. While heavy snowfall allowed the area to open shortly after Thanksgiving last year, this winter the center is home to one of two one-kilometer loops in the state that actually has snow on them (the other is at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury). The Rikert staff had a narrow window of cold weather in November to make the track and Rikert opened its track Dec. 5 thanks to a fleet of HKD snow guns.  
While it’s a far cry from last year, Director Mike Hussey said the local ski area has seen some traffic from Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Southern Vermont; the Berkshires of Massachusetts; and Lake Placid, N.Y.    
“People will still travel when that’s the only thing there is,” he said. “If we had all 55 of our kilometers open it would be a very different story.”
That hasn’t kept the Middlebury College Nordic ski team from practicing — sometimes wearing shorts in the warm weather — every day on the track, which features a mixture of climbs and descents. The ski area returned to producing snow on Friday and continued through this weekend.
“Between running, roller skiing and the snow, they’ll take the one-kilometer every time,” Hussey said. 
While the skiers stick to the track, the center has kept all 55 kilometers of its trails open to a fleet of “fatbikes” available for rental. The bikes feature extra wide tires and no suspension, allowing them to move over terrain with or without snow.
Down the mountain in East Middlebury, Waybury Inn owner Joe Sutton said even though summer and fall are the busiest times for the 13-room inn, they also see regular winter traffic from Nordic and Alpine skiers both in overnight stays and diners in the pub and restaurant.
“Generally anytime there’s ski traffic going up the hill, there’s more business,” he said. “We would prefer there to be snow, but I must say it’s nice not to have to shovel.”
Sutton and his staff were doing plenty of shoveling last year when a series of storms swept through the Champlain Valley and the rest of Vermont. The inn had about a third of its rooms booked every weekend. In addition to the ski travel, the inn also housed electrical line workers from Green Mountain Power for a 10-day period. The crews worked long hours, coming back to the inn for a few hours of sleep before heading out to help in areas left without power.
This year, through the entire month of December, the inn is running 50-percent discounts on it rates.
“That’s a little more aggressive than we ever have been and I would credit it to the two ski areas not being open,” he said.
However, Sutton also said too much snow can be a problem; prompting weekend traffic to head home early on Sunday or delaying or even canceling a trip if a storm hits on a Friday.
“Weather is a tricky thing and it just takes the right balance to equate to greater occupancy or greater dining business,” he said. “There is no set formula.”
In Goshen, Tony Clark has been the owner of the Blueberry Hill Inn for the past 40 years. To him, current weather patterns remind him of the winter of 1978-1979, when snow didn’t come until February. Located in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, the inn has grown in popularity with hikers and mountain bikers who come to explore the expansive network of trails. Clark said he can count on consistent summertime and fall traffic, but wintertime visitors are more fickle. Clark calls it “the backyard effect.”
“If they don’t have snow down there, they’ll think we don’t have snow up here,” he said.
While bookings remain down by 10 percent, Clark is confident they’ll pick up again when the snow arrives.
“I’ve been at it long enough to not get too depressed about it,” he said. “I used to take it personally, but I don’t worry anymore. You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this business.”

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