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Poor Ski Conditions Hurting Small Businesses

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Unhappy trails: Unusually low snow levels across the country have led to a drop in business for ski resorts.
Unhappy trails: Unusually low snow levels across the country have led to a drop in business for ski resorts.

While many in the Northeast and other cold-weather locales may be enjoying a string of balmy, springlike January days, a lack of snow at the nation's ski resorts has led to poor conditions, a drop-off in tourists and big headaches for local businesses.

This marks a dramatic difference from last year. From Park City, Utah, to Killington, Vt., many resorts are reporting only 25 percent of their average snowfall, while at this time last year, places like Vail, Colo., had snow levels nearly 200 percent above their average. The lack of snow, attributed to abnormal western weather patterns and unseasonably warm temperatures in the East, has pushed the snow sport season off its starting point, with some resorts still unable to open trails.

Ski resort towns, home to many small businesses, are suffering due to a lack of skiers and snowboarders, many of whom are avoiding the thinly covered slopes for now.

For one Vail business owner, the end of the holidays marked an end to tourist traffic. "Over Christmas, we were consistently busy," said Werner Fehael, owner of Lancelot Restaurant. "Vail gets a lot of tourists over the holidays, snow or not, especially from international visitors. But it's been dropping off since. This January is a lot slower than last year, when we had record snow levels. For the ski resorts, if there's no snow, there are no tourists, which means there are less customers for us, too."

While natural snow levels remain low, some resort areas are able to supplement with manmade snow. Killington "makes a lot of snow, more than any surrounding resort, so we're seeing a lot of people coming here instead of other areas," said Mary Furlong, owner of the nearby Birch Ridge Inn. "Before Christmas, things were pretty light due to the low snow year, but thanks to the machines, we're now operating near normal levels."

With snowpack in Utah at about 50 percent of its average, businesses at the foot of the mountain are scrambling to make up a loss in skiing-related sales. "We've seen a decrease in ski and snowshoe sales, as well as all the related apparel products since November," said Andy Church, sales manager at Kirkham's in Salt Lake City. While the outfitter relies more on local customers than tourists, Church says the store still saw less foot traffic. "We started running our Christmas sale before Christmas, and we'll be running a sale on all ski equipment and apparel starting this week" to try and clear out some product, he said.

Luckily for Kirkham's, when there's a lack of snow, customers still come searching for equipment for other outdoor sports. "Here in southern Utah, a lot of people take advantage of being able to ski and mountain bike in the same day," Church explained. "We're looking forward to a late ski season in spring, but until then, we're happy to provide our customers with equipment for mountain biking and other activities."

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