Craig Siemers, Polaris dealer at The Sled Shed in Aitkin, spent part of his time repairing a pop machine last week with no sign of snow and not many customers midweek.
Siemers said he could close his shop between Sunday and Thursday for all the business that came through the door. The Sled Shed got out of the snowmobile rental business last year after several years with little snow to help support the insurance costs. And now with winter at what could be considered a halfway point, the bare ground remains visible.
"It's been tough for all the businesses in the area -- bars, hotels, restaurants, not just the ATV/snowmobile businesses," Siemers said. The lack of snow and the effect on business has been a topic of conversation when small business owners and their customers have gathered.
"People are just kind of bummed out," Siemers said. "Everybody has a new sled -- 3 to 5 years old -- in the garage just sitting."
The high temperatures that kept area lakes from freezing did not help. But Siemers sounded resigned.
"I don't know what we are going to do," he said "You can't beat Mother Nature."
Siemers said area small resort owners have also taken a blow until the recent low temperatures made lakes more appealing to ice anglers. Without the attraction of snow, Siemers said many visitors and customers do not have a reason to venture north.
Siemers said a lot of snowmobile dealers are not open during the week. Sales that are coming through may not actually increase the annual revenue, just move it up a few months.
"ATVs are moving," he said. "People who are going to buy in the spring are looking at it now."
The next question on snowmobile dealers' minds may be how the industry will cope. As for his customers, Siemers said many are spending money on home projects instead. One customer who spends $5,000 to $10,000 on snowmobile trips several times a year is now putting on a home addition. Siemers said 1997 was the last good snow year and the second half of 2001 was good.
"We are just not used to it up here," Siemers said. "People are not spending money. ... I don't know how many more mild winters dealers can handle. ... If we keep having bad winters, I don't know what people are going to do."
Spring meetings with dealerships are expected to play a role in whether manufacturers will cut back production.
Snowmobile dealers and snowblower sales may be an obvious connection to a lack of snow, but trail-side restaurants have also been affected. The winter economy has wide circles, including gas stations, grocery stores, bars and lodging establishments.
Primetime Snow Tubing, Breezy Point, has not been open all season because of a lack of snow. When the November snow first arrived, grooming took it down to the dirt. Owner Diane North, who also has Primetime Food and Spirits, Breezy Point, said the lower level of the business -- set up for children, games and food -- is also closed. The adults who sat upstairs watching the children on snow tubes are also missing. The snow tubing portion of the business first opened last year.
North said the mild winter has meant lost revenue.
"We don't have the snowmobilers," North said. "It's just affected the total business."
North said it has been the same all over. The restaurant opened for lunch on weekends when the snow tubing was open. This year, the weekend lunch was discontinued and the restaurant opens at 4 p.m.
"If we get snow we could open the next day, but it would have to be enough and the right kind," North said, noting the latest fluffy snowfall people swept off steps instead of bothering to get shovels.
"Hopefully, we will be able to make snow next year," she said, adding the decision will depend on snow-making equipment prices. "So we'll have to wait and see, but even if we got two months of snow that would help out greatly."
At Cragun's Conference and Golf Resort, 43 new Polaris snowmobiles designed for rental use have been sitting idle for most of the winter. Owner Dutch Cragun said the lack of snow has hurt. Last year, the snowmobile rentals brought in $180,000. This year rentals have amounted to $1,000.
"And that was with our snowfall two months ago," Cragun said.
But Cragun said the lack of snow did not affect the resort as much as they feared in part because of indoor activities like tennis, a running track and gym among others. He said people who were hoping to come for snow in January have put off vacations until this month.
"We think we are going to have a dynamite February and March," Cragun said. "To our delight we are finding -- and I'm predicting -- we will have a tremendous summer."
This winter's warm weather has also combined for the first time with a economic recession. Cragun said the economy played a part in the cancellations after Sept. 11, but nearly all vacationers rebooked with smaller groups for later in the year. Cragun said the resort had a better late fall and early winter because of September cancellations. And he said with the uncertainties of flying and the economy, people are expected to stay closer to home -- perhaps vacationing within driving distance instead.
Cragun is already looking to summer and is guessing the lakes area will have an early spring.
"We are getting the indication it will be booming," he said. "I'm convinced there will be lots of vacations."
He said Sept. 11 made people more aware of the role of spending quality time with families. Cragun said he is optimistic that people will come north. "Their backyard is the best bargain in the world."
In Aitkin, Siemers is hoping for more snow before spring flowers are blooming.
"In Minnesota we are supposed to have snow," Siemers said. "Basically the last four to five years we have not had a lot of snow. There is just not much you can do. ... We'll see what happens. See what the industry does. Nothing you can do. Just hope for weather. That's all I hope for everyday -- I hope it snows."
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