About three weeks ago something changed in area coin-operated laundries.
There were people with loads of laundry in their arms and puzzled expressions on their faces. Front doors on triple-load washers may not have existed the last time those customers were in a coin-operated laundry. It is easy to spot the rookies.
But this year's odd winter of little snow, cold temperatures and frozen septic system drain fields is forcing new customers back to the laundries. While coins are flowing at the laundries, other businesses invested in snow for removal or recreation are struggling through another miserable season.
For laundries the additional traffic was an unexpected, but not unwelcome winter boost.
At Mr. Tubbs, on Mill Avenue in Brainerd, people have been ready to get in for the first load of the day at 7:30 a.m. and 36 washers have been running all day until the last loads at 8:30 p.m. A mid-week quiet on a Wednesday gave way to steady sloshing as washing machines were busy. Standard costs for a single load these days is $1.50 with $2 for double load machines and $3 for triple loaders. A quarter can typically buy 10 minutes of tumbling time.
"It's been fairly busy most of the time during the week and really busy on the weekends of course," said Carri Kostek, attendant at Mr. Tubbs. "Four girls came and said their system had backed up and they were in here washing and they had 18 loads of laundry. Quite a few people have been talking about their systems backing up."
It has been a familiar reaction at other outlets, Snow White, Bonkers and Giant Wash in Brainerd. At Giant Wash some of the customers were coming in from Pillager and points west. Gary Smith, owns both Mr. Tubbs and Snow White.
"I notice we have a lot of people come in who aren't familiar with the Laundromat," Smith said, but he noted the increase in the customer base has been offset somewhat by the increase in natural gas prices.
At the Pequot Lakes Laundromat, owner Todd Hendrix, said he still has people coming in on a daily basis saying their septic system just froze.
"It's a shot in the arm," Hendrix said, noting the drop-off business the Laundromat typically gets from area resorts was not there this winter. Hendrix said the Laundromat experienced about a 50 percent increase in business compared to earlier this winter.
Matt Stephens, owner/operator of the Black Bear Laundromat in Nisswa, said he noticed about a half dozen new customers a day. He said the tell-tale sign is when they skip the dryer cycle and take the wet clothes home.
"It's helped me make it through the winter for sure," Stephens said. "It's just business I wouldn't have had."
On the other side of the fence are snowplow operators and snowmobile sales and service operators who thought this had to be the winter for snow after years without it.
James Halverson, Brainerd Sports and Marine, said it has been a long, hard winter for anyone who relies on snow for winter activities.
"It's been a few years since we called it a good winter," Halverson said.
Even with the little bit of new snow that fell this month, Halverson said he had more traffic in his showroom in the last 10 to 15 days than he had in all of February. For consumers, the benefit of this continued drought is a spring with deep discounts, cash bonuses, and 0 percent interest options for snowmobiles. In some cases, discounts are $2,400 to $2,500 off the manufacturer's suggested price on machines that typically cost $6,000 to $7,000.
"It's been a bad winter, there is no doubt about it," said Gary Miller, owner/manager of Northwood Equipment in Aitkin. "I would say it's the worse winter I've ever had and I've been in business 25 years. It's been mildly devastating."
This year, Miller said the optimism that snow would come was not even there at winter's beginning. While four-wheeler sales came, it did not match the dollars from snowmobile-related sales and service. He said those dollars are leaving the community every time the snowmobiles are loaded for snow-covered areas elsewhere. Miller struggled to keep his staff going without layoffs. It has been frustrating for the industry.
Days when 500 snowmobilers went by on the nearby trail were replaced with days of little or no traffic. Miller said after a recent snow brought nine snowmobilers in at one time he asked if there was a freak snowstorm.
While equipment dealers are now looking at summer marine sales or lawn care products, they are still hoping for a good spring snowstorm to lay the groundwork for next season. And Miller said if people are right about a 10-year pattern of snow drought, at least the area is halfway through.
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