Lack of snow curse for retailers, ski resorts, blessing for highway departments

A snowmobile for sale sits on green grass Friday on Route 11 in the Town of Watertown. Photo by Justin Sorensen, Watertown Daily Times.

A snowmobile for sale sits on green grass Friday on Route 11 in the Town of Watertown. Photo by Justin Sorensen, Watertown Daily Times.

The lack of snowfall in November and December has been a blessing for municipalities that have saved on fuel and road salt, but a curse for ski resorts and retailers of snowmobiles, snowshoes and other winter gear.

The unusually warm weather has not pleased Todd J. Phelps, owner of Black River Adventurer’s Shop on Mill Street in Watertown. The small business usually relies on the sale of cross-country skis and snowshoes for about 80 percent of its sales from November through February. But as of yet, hardly any winter gear has sold.

“It’s just been really slow,” he said Monday.

Mr. Phelps noted that Northern Credit Union’s digital sign — across the street from his shop — said the temperature was 62 degrees on Monday morning.

Monday’s high temperature of 67 degrees was the warmest on record for Dec. 14, according to data collected by the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Watertown International Airport in the town of Hounsfield. The temperature broke the previous record of 65 degrees that was set in 1901.

Mr. Phelps said if snow doesn’t start falling in the next week, he won’t enjoy a pre-Christmas rush from shoppers.

“If the weather patterns change soon,” he said, “I could still salvage the Christmas season.”

He said that last year, when the north country had a lot of snowfall in November, he sold about 15 pairs of skis through mid-December.

But this year “I haven’t sold a single pair of cross-country skis in November or December,” Mr. Phelps said. “This kind of weather has erased last winter from everyone’s memory.”

Last year, Watertown had 21.8 inches of snowfall in November and 11.3 inches in December, according to data collected by the Northeast Regional Climate Center at a weather station off Eastern Boulevard in the city, but only 1 inch of snow has fallen this fall, on Nov. 24.

The sale of snowblowers and snow tires in November and December at Cheney Tire on State Street in Watertown is down roughly 25 percent from the same period last year, owner Thomas J. Cheney said. He said snow tires won’t be a priority for many people until roads are blanketed in snow.

“We’re now in sort of a lull,” Mr. Cheney said, “because they’re juggling buying snow tires or purchasing Christmas gifts.”

Ski resorts, meanwhile, are keeping a close eye on the weather forecast.

Cynthia J. Sisto, who bought the Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin this fall with son Nicholas D. Mir, said she hopes temperatures will drop low enough this weekend to start making snow, enabling the resort to open on Christmas week.

“The guns are all set and we’re ready to make snow as soon as the temperatures allow it,” Ms. Sisto said. “I know the temperature is going to get into the 20s this weekend, but then the temperature is going to go up again next week.”

Ms. Sisto, who worked more than three decades at the Toggenburg Mountain Winter Sports Center in Fabius, said she’s only seen this kind of warm December weather a few times.

“We wanted to get off to a better start, but there’s not much you can do about the weather,” she said, adding that the resort could lose roughly 10 percent of its anticipated revenue if it fails to open this month.

Savings for municipalities

The warm weather has been a boon for highway departments across the north country, however, which have saved on road salt and diesel fuel that they normally spend. Warm weather has enabled departments to focus on other activities, such as road projects.

The Jefferson County Highway Department spent much of its time last November and December salting and plowing roads, said James L. Lawrence Jr., superintendent of the department. It used roughly 1,000 tons of road salt through the end of December 2014.

“But this year I bet we’ve only used about 40 tons so far for the one day of snow we had around Thanksgiving,” he said.

The department typically spends about $160,000 a year on road salt, Mr. Lawrence said, purchasing about 2,500 tons. If the warm weather continues, that number would be sharply down.

“We’re saving now, but it could change if we see more ice than snow come at the end of December and in January,” adding that he believes the department has already saved $20,000 to $30,000 on diesel fuel normally used by plow trucks.

The department normally shifts its attention from road projects to plowing snow from roads after Thanksgiving weekend, Mr. Lawrence said. But warm weather has enabled workers to continue working on the roads.

“It has also allowed us to go after 100 trees that need to be cleared or removed from the county right-of-way,” he said.

The Lewis County Highway Department is expected to save diesel fuel, sand and road salt because of the warm weather, County Manager Elizabeth Swearingin said. But she said those savings pale in comparison to the economic benefit in sales tax revenue the county would enjoy from snowfall in December, when the snowmobiling season in the Tug Hill region usually kicks off in earnest.

Despite savings realized by the Highway Department, “we would much rather prefer snow because it brings in sales taxes by filling up hotels and restaurants” with snowmobilers, she said. “The probable loss in sales taxes is not going to offset the savings on overtime, sand, salt and plowing costs.”

In December 2014, the county collected about $1.5 million in sales taxes; it collected about $360,000 in January, $742,000 in February and $976,000 in March.

Repeated attempts on Tuesday to reach Donald R. Chambers, director of the St. Lawrence County Department of Highways, and Ruth A. Doyle, county administrator, were unsuccessful.

Snowmobile sales slow

Charles G. Caprara, co-owner of the F.X. Caprara franchise, said there has been a noticeable absence of snowmobile buyers at the franchise’s Harley-Davidson store off Route 11 in Adams Center and the Caprara Bros. Outdoor Toy Store on Route 13 in Pulaski.

“Impulsive buyers of snowmobiles, who wait until the snow comes, aren’t out there right now,” he said.

Mr. Caprara said this fall’s decline in snowmobile sales comes after the franchise sold nearly all of the 300 snowmobiles it had in stores last winter, when consistent snowfall helped spur sales throughout the season.

The franchise also usually relies on snowy conditions after Thanksgiving weekend to boost the sale of four-wheel-drive automobiles, Mr. Caprara said. Although warm weather has slowed the purchase of those vehicles, he said, customers continue to buy sports cars because of the warm weather.

“Our numbers are still consistent with 20-degree weather,” Mr. Caprara said. “When you can pass people riding motorcycles in December, snowplow trucks aren’t going to sell … But we’re seeing an increase in some of the cars we don’t normally sell in the middle of December, like Corvettes and Camaros.”

Matthew J. Waite, general manager of Waite Motorsports, said only two snowmobiles have been sold this month at the store, located off Route 11 next to F.X. Caprara’s Harley-Davidson store. Though the warm weather hasn’t been too costly yet for the store, he said, it will be if it lingers into January. In response to last winter’s strong sales, he said, the store ordered 19 more Polaris snowmobiles than last year, going from 42 to 61 sleds.

“If the warm weather keeps up, next year we’ll have a whole bunch of 2016 sleds still in stock,” Mr. Waite said. “If we don’t get some snow now, we’re going to run out of chances to sell them.”

By Ted Booker, Times staff Writer