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Slow business for snow business

Children run on a snow-bare in the Barnebirke one-kilometer race Thursday afternoon in Hayward. Lack of snow and warm weather has curtailed many traditional wintertime activities. Bob King /

With a late start and signs of an early end, winter has had about as strong a season as last year's Minnesota Twins.

That's not good for businesses in the region that depend on the white stuff for the green stuff.

"We're not bored, but we're certainly not busy," said Nikolai Anikin, one of the owners of Duluth's Continental Ski and Bike.

Facing this recent unseasonable weather, seasonal businesses such as ski shops and snowmobile retailers are starting to take a hit on their bottom lines — Spirit Mountain even had to close for a few days last week.

"We're down two-thirds compared to normal," Anikin said. "Fat bikes are definitely increasing, but all and all, it would be better if we had winter."

Help may be on the way, as normal — that is, colder — temperatures are expected to return in March, and more snow could follow.

"At least for the next week or so it looks like we'll be on the warmer side of normal," said Bryan Howell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. "After that it looks like we cool down to normal with a more active period of storms every couple of days. We could get some snows that will stick around."

That could answer some prayers, but will it be enough to make up for this dent in the season?

Searching for snow

Snowmobilers renting from Beaver Bay Sports can ride right out of the shop most Februarys. No such luck as of late.

"We had it all going just fantastic until the rain came," said Beaver Bay Sports owner Cindy Wartman. "We still have rentals; it's getting them out of here that's hard."

The shore was bare last week, but a solid base remained on Northland snowmobile trails. So while the snow is elusive, it's still out there.

"We've worked through warm-ups we've had," Wartman said. "We're bringing in so many tourism dollars to all the local businesses, resorts, hotels — we just need that snow."

Farther up the shore, the story is similar. Visitors and locals are still heading outside, and they're still stopping by Buck's Hardware Hank in Grand Marais. It's just a matter of chasing the snow and holding out hope for more.

"Overall we've done fairly well," said Tracy Benson, a manager at Buck's. "But if it keeps going like this it cuts winter short. People's mindset turns to spring."

Last week Benson looked out the shop's window and saw snowmobilers pull up while talking about how the season has gone, then checked the temperature — 42 degrees.

She brought up the season when there was no season-opening fishing since there was still ice on the lake. It goes both ways.

"It's hard with the extremes," Benson said. "We will keep our fingers crossed."

Not every lake has remained as iceless as Superior this year. Ice fishing has had a fine year throughout the state. Out west, Bill Powell reported an average season of business at Fred's Bait in Deer River.

"We're doing pretty well; it's still froze up pretty good," the shop owner said, taking solace in the weather forecast. "I think it's going to be good for a while now."

No Birkie

Across state lines, the optimism died on Friday when the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race was cancelled due to lack of snow, with organizers instead holding BirkieStock over the weekend.

It was just the second cancellation in 44 years — meaning it's a reasonable venture to build a business or base events around what would normally be predictable snowfall.

"When we have snow, which we usually do, it's a winter wonderland," said Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chris Ruckdaschel.

Winter tourism driven by the Birkie isn't just a boon for local businesses; it could help draw future residents as well.

"It's a huge economic impact," Ruckdaschel said. "For a lot of folks, it's where they first find out about Cable or Hayward, and maybe become second homeowners. Some of that isn't precisely quantified, but if we get 12,000 skiers, there could be 35,000 to 45,000 folks in town."

Cross-country skiers have been harder hit than downhill skiers, since resorts like Lutsen and Giants Ridge have held onto their snowpack even in the face of February's heat wave.

Not so much for the hometown hill.

Spirit Mountain, which closed Wednesday and Thursday last week and did not respond to requests for comment for this story, tried to cheer up sad skiers and shredders on social media.

"Things could always be much worse," the city-owned resort wrote on Facebook. "It's been challenging for sure, but there is still much winter season left and we're stoked to make the most of it! Let it SNOW!"

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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