Winter wonderland or woes for area businesses

Weather has been boon and bad

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Jan. 18, 2007, 9:38 a.m.)

Old Man Winter peeked his head through the clouds the first few weeks of December and didn't show it again around here until last weekend.

This winter, or seemingly lack thereof, has toyed with area businesses both negatively and positively.

A minor El Nino effect in the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru and Ecuador, is causing the upper Midwest to experience warmer and dryer conditions than normal, said National Weather Service Meteorologist J.J. Wood.

That means above-average business for some small companies and a drought for others.

Landscaping and excavating businesses have gotten traditionally springtime work done throughout this winter season due to less snow and frost.

"It hasn't been bad for us. We actually started on some spring projects," Mike Bimrose, manager of Four Seasons Home Care in Delavan said last week Monday. "This snow kind of killed us, but we were going pretty good on landscaping."

And, "The excavators are happy as heck. They'd rather be out digging than shoveling snow," he added.

Bimrose said landscapers have been blessed by the warmer-than-average temperatures and less-than-average white stuff. If it's too cold with no snow, then there's nothing to plow and no landscaping work to be done, Bimrose said. Too much snow and the landscaping takes a back seat to plowing work that is hard on equipment.

Ace Hardware in Elkhorn reported customers buying more indoor and outdoor paint in December, an indication that homeowners are getting a jump on their spring projects, too, said assistant manager J.P. Oehler.

Other hot-selling items have been outdoor decorations, gutter accessories and even grass seed.

Their snow blowers sold out after the winter's first storm, yet ice-melting driveway salt is hardly selling for this time of year, Oehler said.

"By now we probably should have been through eight to 10 pallets of ice melt. This year it's been maybe four or five or so," Oehler said.

But some businesses haven't seen such rays of sunshine. Their winters have been duller than the brown, dead grass and leafless trees that dominated the landscape until this most recent snow.

The Dec. 1 blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow on parts of southeastern Wisconsin was a blessing to area snowmobile dealerships. Once it disappeared, so did the customers, said Barb Nichols, co-owner of A+ Power Sports and Trailer Sales in Elkhorn.

"Once the snow was gone, we've been dry," Nichols said. "Nobody's been walking in the door."

With above-freezing temperatures for a record 32 days in Madison--from Dec. 9 through Jan. 8--the snow hasn't had a real chance to stick around down here, Wood said.

At Dane County Regional Airport, 37 out of 45 days this winter have had an average temperature greater than normal, Wood said. Thirty-eight days were above the normal high and 37 days stayed above the normal low.

Northern Wisconsin is also seeing less snow than usual, again attributed to the El Nino effect, Wood said.

"If there's no snow to ride up North, they're not breaking anything so we're not fixing anything," Nichols said. "And if there's no snow then they're not buying anything so we're not selling anything."

A+ and other dealerships have survived the recent slower winters by selling other products, such as All-Terrain Vehicles, motorcycles, apparel items and accessories.

ATV sales have flourished while snowmobile sales nationwide have slumped, Nichols said.

"It's sad. Mother Nature has had it in for us," she said. "Everyone is in the same boat.

"The hardest part is the (snowmobile) manufacture's numbers. They're still seeing things as if it's 1970 and we're going to have big (sales) numbers, but who are we going to sell to?"

Some bait and tackle shops have actually seen customers come in with their boats trailers attached to their cars instead of their ice shanties.

Brian Bishop, owner of Delavan Lake Bait and Tackle, has been open only two full weeks and a handful of Saturdays this winter and estimates losing almost $40,000 in volume. Delavan Lake, which is across the street, has had very little ice cover allowing boaters to go where ATVs usually are come this time of year.

"That's where the big money is in ice fishing is when guys can bring their ATV," Bishop said. "Then you've got guys venturing out all over the place."

Geneva Lake Bait and Tackle owner Brian Gates kept his doors open since nearby Geneva Lake has yet to see hardly any ice at all.

"Early season started with a bang, but the last week or so has been totally dead," Gates said of the recent artic blast that blew away above-freezing temperatures.

Gates said ice anglers would be lucky to get more than a week on the main body of Geneva Lake this winter.

"My ice shanty rentals are down to zero," he said.

Even ski hills have experienced a slump this winter. Grand Geneva's Mountain Top has been open and making snow, but the skiers and snowboarders haven't been coming as they had in the past, said Hans Hauschild, snow sports center director.

"I think the reason is people don't see snow in their own back yard so they don't think we can make it here," Hauschild mused. "They don't realize how well we can make snow here."

For Gates and the other businesses that depend on the cold and snow this time of year, there's not much to do but hope for the best and wait until spring.

"I don't really try to recoup any of my losses," Gates said. "You just try and get back the remainder of the winter by doing what you normally are doing (for business)."


Extended weather outlook

AccuWeather Meteorologist Marc Spilde said evidence shows the El Nino effect is weakening, which could mean an extended cold spell the rest of the winter.

"Our position is in patterns such as this where the pattern weakens, the second half of the winter can turn out to be fairly cold in these parts," Spilde said.

AccuWeather predicts a cold, dry flow of air blanketing the upper Midwest until spring arrives.

"While there is opportunity for storms, we'll be averaging near or just below average precipitation," Spilde said. "We'll get some systems from across Canada that drop down into the trough, but usually they're very weak.

"There may be times where it warms up a little bit, but overall the general pattern is melting into one where there will be more opportunity for air from Canada to drop down into the U.S."



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