Minnesota businesses are seeing red ink in brown winter

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA and DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2012 - 9:14 AM

Instead of moving snow, Blizzard Plowing owner David Melquist has pulled all his advertising for the year, killed his vacation plans and stopped doing maintenance on his equipment. For cross-country ski store owner Jan Guenther, this winter is the worst in 25 years.

"This socks us flat on our face," she said.

While some Minnesotans are reveling in the novelty of jogging in shorts in January, businesses that rely on snow to pay the bills are hoping that the weather turns cold and some of that white stuff falls. Ski shops, snowplowing businesses, contractors that remove ice dams and resorts are all suffering as the brown winter stretches on. Coming after last year's snowy winter and the near-constant business it brought, it's a shock.

"This will toughen retailers up, and some will probably go out of business," said Guenther, who owns the Gear West Cross Country Ski and Run store in Long Lake, where sales are down 30 percent from what she planned in a worst-case scenario. "We'll get through the winter, but it won't be fun."

Melquist owns five snow plow trucks and hires seven other contractors. This year, none of them is making money.

"It's really a tough business. I would not want my son to have this career," said Melquist, who went into plowing full time after the 1991 Halloween blizzard.

His lack of business affects more than himself. He might have bought a new truck or plow, he said. Instead, he said, "We will all try to eke by this year. We are just going to hunker down."

Plowing can be a tough business even when it's busy. Last winter, Roger Terveen of Maple Lake worked for an agency plowing at 38 private homes. There was so much snow that he had to hire his stepson to keep up. Between gas, equipment breakdowns and splitting his $13 hourly wage, "I didn't make any money," he said.

He quit and set up shop on his own as RT Lawn Care. But, with the lack of snow, he has plowed just one driveway this season, so he works as a mechanic on the side "to bring in the beer money," he jested.

Resorts are suffering, too. At George Nitti's Hunters Point Resort on Lake Mille Lacs, there's open water. Nitti said he canceled 50 to 60 bookings and business is down $150,000 compared to last year.

Instead of wall-to-wall ice fishing, "it's empty to empty," Nitti said.

The resort has 20 employees working two or three days a week instead of four and five. Nitti is working seven days a week to keep expenses down and he's hoping for colder weather.

Unpaid vacations

Last winter was a record for ice dams. At Gopher Co. in Minneapolis this year, employees are counting on other exterior work, said owner Jason Brouwer.

"You'd be surprised how many people put on roofs in January," he said.

Brouwer said he never counts on ice dam business, but the company feels it in seasons such as this one. His staffing is down 75 percent from last year, with about 30 employees and contracted workers not working right now. "They don't even call because they know I don't have any work," he said.

Employees at Ice Dam Co. in Hopkins are taking "unpaid vacations," owner Steve Kuhl said. Last winter, his firm handled just under 1,200 ice dam jobs.

"Last year was a freakish anomaly, and we're built to ride it out," Kuhl said. He also has a contracting business.

In the meantime, $80,000 worth of ice dam steamers sit idle. They also gathered dust between 2003 and 2009, Kuhl said, but last year "that equipment paid for itself in a couple of days."

While artificial snow has preserved cross-country skiing at a few Twin Cities locations, Guenther said a dearth of snow across much of North America has affected even her mail-order business. Although she hasn't cut full-time staff, she has eliminated some part-time workers.

"We are doing chores we don't usually have time for, like inventory, and we're selling a lot more running shoes," she said.

Guenther said she was cheered to teach a class at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and find the manmade cross-country snow area crowded with tiny kids, older folks, disabled skiers training for the Paralympics and college and high school skiers doing time trials.

But she finds the lack of snow depressing.

"It's a real challenge to keep your spirits up, because I love the sport so much," she said. "Everybody's just waiting to see what happens. ... We're all trying to figure out what to do and hoping to salvage the winter."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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  • A (no)shirt-sleeve day: Osseo’s Eric Rogers, left, and Jason Schulte traversed artificial snow Monday at Elm Creek Park Reserve.

  • David Melquist, owner of Blizzard Plowing, has plowed once this season. “We will all try to eke by this year,” he said.

  • At Gear West Cross Country Ski and Run, owner Jan Guenther said this season has been painful. “It socks us right in the face,” she said, adding that sales are down 30 percent from her already diminished expectations. “We’ll get through the winter, but it won’t be fun.”

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