Many have adjusted their operations to take mild winters into account.
Farmers have their "million-dollar rain," so for winter sports businesses this weekend might bring a "million-dollar snow."
Snow is possible across much of now-brown Minnesota and into western Wisconsin from Friday night through Sunday, perhaps enough to get people thinking of buying some snow toys for Christmas after all. The National Weather Service is forecasting a light blanket spread across central and southern Minnesota Friday night through Sunday; a winter storm with snow, high winds and temperatures in the single digits is expected across northwest Minnesota.
At Heinen's, a family-owned motorsports dealer in Osseo, a good snow now could mean the difference between a spike in sales and staff layoffs -- something owner Paul Heinen said used to be common only in the summer. It could, he said, be "like I won the lottery."
Customers and staff alike are anxious, Heinen said, after last winter turned out to be largely mild and snow-free and ongoing drought conditions suggest more of the same for this winter. A weak economy and milder winters have caused him to scale back snowmobiles and accessories from 80 percent of his business to about 20 percent, with ATVs picking up some of the winter slack.
"We can get snowfall and say it's about the same (annual amount) as it used to be, but does it stick around? Are we becoming Iowa?" Heinen said. "There could even be 2 feet of snow up north, but it's brown here, people aren't getting out as much as they would if there were snow out the door."
A study released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that two low-snow winters in the past decade cost the nation's ski tourism industry more than $1 billion. For Minnesota, the loss was 100 jobs and $6.8 million in lost business, but some say year-round activities can provide a buffer.
Giants Ridge manager Linda Johnson said the ski resort near Biwabik has worked to respond more quickly to changing seasons, shortening the time it takes to switch from skiing to golf and back.
"We've had to adapt to being a four-season amenity," she said.
Last year's ski season closed two weeks early in 70-degree temperatures, Johnson said. She hopes for a longer season this year. Despite the late summer and autumn drought, the resort had 12 to 36 inches of machine-made snow on its downhill runs Thursday and was planning to fire up the snowmakers again Thursday night after stopping for recent warm weather.
In Minneapolis, the Park and Recreation Board opened a half-kilometer Nordic ski trail at Wirth Park with artificial snow Nov. 30, and is preparing 47 ice rinks in 22 parks and on city lakes, said spokeswoman Dawn Sommers. It has also labeled many of its paved paths for winter mixed use by both walkers and bicyclists; where separate paths exist, only one will be cleared of snow in the winter.
"For every individual who likes the dry trails, the balmy weather and the fact we're building a dog park right now because we can still dig, there's a whole host of people standing in line behind them waiting for the ice rinks for broomball and skating, and for cross-country skiing," she said. "It sounds corny to say we have something for everyone, but the fact of the matter is, we do."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646