Where is the snow? Michigan ski slopes scraping bottom

Pete Kocefas, owner of Sledheads, a snowmobile retailer in Frederic in northern Michigan, used to call the period between Christmas and New Year’s “hell week,” because his store was filled with customers.

This year, he’s using that term for another reason: no customers.

“Last year, the first machines rode in Dec. 3. This year, not until Dec. 28,” said Kocefas, whose business is down 90%.

Michigan has seen little snow this year, which is hurting businesses that are usually white-hot when there’s plenty of the white, cold stuff.

“All ski areas are seeing less traffic in than in a normal year,” said Steve Kershner, chairman of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association board and director of snow sports at Shanty Creek Resorts. “The brew pub in town has less people in it. The lunch places have less people in them. The gas stations … There’s a huge ripple effect.”

This week is especially important. According to Kershner, 15% of a winter resort’s revenues is earned between Christmas and New Year’s.

“We can all rebound really well and really fast and I’m confident we will,” he said.

Ski industry waiting for a real Michigan winter

The lack of snow is enough to make any business that caters to winter-sports enthusiasts shiver.

Ski resorts are closed. Snowshoe and snowmobile outfitters are hurting. Motels, bars and restaurants near cross-country ski trails and ski resorts are nearly empty.

The economic impact of winter travel in the state is $4 billion annually, which represents 23.3% of the $17.2-billion travel and tourism spending in the state, according to Travel Michigan’s 2010 data.

Not only are snow levels down throughout Michigan (in one case, in the Alpena area, an 88-year low), but temperatures aren’t cold enough to produce the man-made white stuff, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s make-or-break from today through New Year’s,” Michigan Snowsports Industries Association’s executive director Mickey MacWilliams said Wednesday. “Certainly, we’re not doing cartwheels, because it’s not been too cooperative lately. Even if there’s no snow in your backyards, there’s snow on our ski slopes.”

Mt. Holly in Oakland County’s catchphrase is “Where the north begins,” but like ski resorts and snowmobiling sports facilities farther north, the snow isn’t what they’d like. Business there is off 50%.

“We obviously got off to a slow start, because winter kept postponing itself and when it did come in, it just came in with a couple nights to make snow,” said general manager Mark Tibbits, explaining that Wednesday was the first time the parking lot was full since Dec. 11.

Added Jim Bartlett, president and general manager of Nub’s Nob, a ski resort in Harbor Springs, “If I was a cross-country retailer or a snowmobiler retailer, I’d be shaking in my boots. … The millions of dollars in investment we’ve made in snowmaking allows us to make snow.”

At Strongs Tavern Motel in Eckerman in the Upper Peninsula, co-owner Irene Lawless said she’s seen a 60% drop in business.

“We are getting a little worried,” she said. “Usually, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is a big week. All the motels in our town are sitting empty. … We’re hoping it turns around.”

The Riviera Resort in Prudenville near Houghton Lake, which also sees a lot of ice-fishing fans, has rented only 10 of its 26 rooms. Owner Marie Brasza Pinch said her revenues are down about 60%.

“We are really praying for snow. We’re doing our snow dance to get our snow in,” she said. “Once the snow melts, you’re down real low until the summer comes. This whole lake is upset. All the businesses around the lake are all very troubled, because of the lack of snow and of course, the economy hasn’t helped this year, the gas prices.”

And the Swiss Valley Ski Snowboard Area south of Kalamazoo hasn’t even been able to open yet, according to general manager Jim Wiseman.

“I’ve been in it for 40 years. I never get nervous. It is what it is. I have no problem with it, except the loss of revenues,” he said, explaining that he usually has 60-65 days in a season that starts after Thanksgiving to make money. “Twenty percent is gone already, for sure. That’s Christmas week. … We’ve been waiting for some cold weather to make some snow. The snow we’re trying to make here in this corner of the state is wet and sloppy. It’s not easy to groom and not conducive to good skiing.”

But Tibbits remains hopeful.

“For us, this is just another hiccup in the weather forecast,” he said. “I’m an optimist. I’d have to be or I couldn’t do this work.”

Contact Zlati Meyer: 313-223-4439 or zmeyer@freepress.com

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