It’s the first week of March and skies in Missoula are mid-summer blue. The hillsides are bare. Trails in the Rattlesnake, Bitterroot and Mission mountains are accessible in boots. In some cases the trails are even dry. The deck at the Old Post Pub is open. Liquid Planet and Taco del Sol have reclaimed the sidewalks with outdoor tables.
It looks as though spring is upon us, but this year it came without the long-winter hunker down that most people who live in the valley are used to, including those who rely on snow and ice to make money.
For the tank-top-wearing sun-lovers among us this short, dry winter is a stroke of luck, but little snow and above-average temperatures forced Montana Snowbowl last weekend to cancel one of its biggest annual events, the Snowbowl Gelande Championship. This two-day ski-jump event usually draws 1,500 to 2,000 people to jump and watch. But more important to Snowbowl’s bottom line, jumpers and spectators also eat and drink. The sale of food and alcohol brings in most of the money the event makes—money that the ski hill will miss this year.
“There’s no snow on the jump. There’s snow all the way around it but not on it,” General Manager Brad Morris says. “And unfortunately, there’s no snow-making on the jump.”
The cancellation of the Gelande Championship only added to a slow year at Missoula’s only commercial ski area.
“The number of skier visits is down, there is no question about that,” Morris says. “But 85 percent of the mountain is open. We’ve had an incredible number of days of sunshine this year compared with about five or six days last year. It’s the skier’s perception that there isn’t much skiing.” The upper mountain still has quality skiing, he says.
Perception may be a tough hurdle to overcome in the ski business, but with the snow pack at about 50 percent of average in and around Missoula this year, other Missoula businesses are dealing with the reality that a dry winter means a change in their business.
Shawn Basolo has seen a slip in business. Basolo owns Basolo Auto Body and Paint. “We’ve had far fewer cars this winter,” Basolo says. “This business is always going to be determined by weather. I mean I don’t pray for snow so that people have wrecks, but this year the number of cars has been quite a bit lower.”
Winter is usually the busiest time of year for Mark Pollock at Blue Ribbon Auto Body. Business in winter can “sometimes be unbearable,” he says. “But it definitely hasn’t been that way this year.”
The dry year has even affected city departments. Brian Hensel, street maintenance superintendent for the city, says that last year Missoula spent $123,000 on deicer for area roads, and this year it looks like it will spend less than $100,000.
While the city is saving money because of winter weather conditions, outdoor retailers like Jim Wilson are losing it.
Wilson, owner of Pipestone Mountaineering, calls this winter the worst for business he’s seen since 1976.
“In essence, on a year like this one you don’t make any money,” Wilson says. “The weather brings about a shift in attitude, the shift in attitude puts us in a transition period and we don’t make any money in transition periods. So the lack of snow has a huge impact.”
But, he says, no snow is only a piece of the puzzle that causes business owners like him to struggle.
“Mostly I think it’s an attitude change. Where there isn’t positive snow, people’s attitudes are not going to be good,” Wilson says. “They postpone or cancel ski trips, and when they cancel trips they don’t come in and get the necessary little things they need to take the trips.” A winter like this one can set him back a year financially, he says.
Todd Frank, owner of the Trailhead, says he’s sees the general enthusiasm for winter disappear when there is so little snow.
“We are way, way, way off this year from other years,” he says. “Physically there are not people coming in the door to buy skis.” The slow traffic in his store means he’s not selling ski apparel and winter clothing either, and he’s had to discount his ski and snow equipment to the point that now he just hopes to get back what he paid for it.
Both Wilson and Frank say a few bad seasons can put some retailers out of business, and neither is quick to make predictions for summer.
“The attitude is that there is a drought and no one will do anything this summer either,” Wilson says. “But the next months will tell how a lot of us will do.”
With no real moisture in the forecast, all these businesses can do is wait to see what the traditionally wet months ahead will bring.
But last week Frank put the Trailhead’s boat orders for summer on hold. “I’m more nervous about the forward impact than I am about the winter,” he says.