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The deeper we get into winter, the more the local economy needs snow

We need snow. Ask any snomobiler. Without snow, there is a lot less winter fun.

But there's also an economic impact. There's a whole industry of bars, restaurants, repair shops, fireplace retailers and other businesses that depend on cold weather and snow.

The forecast for this winter is: We just don't know.

"There's an equal chance for above or below normal for both temperature and precipitation," said Jim Mitchell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

If the start of winter had seen the formation of an El Nino or a La Nina, then forecasters could make a longer range prediction on what kind of winter we might expect. Without either of those weather phenomena, the outlook is neutral.

The longest range prediction, Mitchell said is that outside of today, we'll see warmer and drier conditions for about a week and then some colder temperatures and some precipitation up to about 18 days out.

There is a chance, Mitchell said, of a white Christmas.

Kevin Fisher, president of Genesee Sno Packers, is keeping an eye on the weather.

Last year's dry winter resulted in fewer people -- about half of normal -- registering their snowmobiles.

Most of the state fee for registrations -- $35 of it -- went to local snowmobile clubs to help maintain the state's 10,000-mile trail system.

Without that money, many clubs may be hurting, Fisher said.

"In your household, a business, in any organization, getting half of your funding cut is pretty hard to swallow," Fisher said.

If that happens again this year, the impact could be devastating.

"My biggest fear is that snowmobile clubs, not necessarily right here in Genesee County, but statewide, are going to have difficulty staying afloat," Fisher said. "The trail system as we know it will start to come apart."

Right now, registrations statewide are down 17,000 from this time a year ago.

Fisher suggested that people at least join their local clubs, pay their local dues, that will at least help finance some trail grooming.

Guy Clark, owner of Cedar Street Sales and Rentals, said he always has a plan A, B, or C for his seasonable business.

In a normal winter, Clark said Cedar Street might sell 100 to 150 snowblowers and service twice that many.

That didn't happen last winter, but the winter was so mild, his service department kept busy getting lawn mowers ready for spring, and the early spring helped with other sales.

It actually would have been a worse winter if there had only been about a foot of snow and then the ground just stayed frozen for a month or two, Clark said.

When it's cold, said Rita Towner, co-owner of WNY Fireplace Outlet, and home heating oil bills are going through the roof, people start looking at less expensive alternatives for heat, such as wood or pellets.

"We're creatures of habit," Towner said. "When it's cold, we want to be warmer, but we don't want to pay extra money."

But while sales have been slow for wood and pellet systems, Towner said, it's been a weird winter so far. A lot of people are coming in looking for gas inserts, and those sales are balancing the books.

"There are a lot of people who are getting away from wood and looking for something more efficient," Towner said.

As for a longer term outlook -- the kind possibly related to climate change -- Mitchell said he isn't looking at the weather patterns that way. Everything balances out, he said, and while WNY had an unseasonably mild winter in 2012, Alaska had colder temperatures and more snow than average, as did much of northern Europe.

A lot depends, he said, on the jet stream. If it pushes cold Canadian air into the Northeast, we're more likely to get winter storms. When the jet stream stays to the north, we get warmer weather, but somebody else is colder.

For snowmobilers now is not the time to worry about a lack of snow, Fisher said. It's what comes later this month and January that matters.

"We could have a great winter yet and technically the trails don’t open until Dec. 19, so as present of a snowmobile club, I’m glad it’s not snowing right now," Fisher said. "I would like to see cold and get the ground frozen, but as far as snow, no, because there’s still hunters out there. It’s their time. It’s their season. If there’s snow people are tempted to go out and ride."

Riding now, he said, causes problems with property owners who donate land to trails -- and they are often are also hunters -- so Fisher is glad people are off the trails.

The weather and the economy definitely have a ripple effect, Clark said.

First, many of his customers do landscaping during the summer and spring, and if they're not plowing driveways in the winter, they're not making the money that will help pay for a new lawn mower in the spring.

Second, Clark noted, there are a lot of businesses, such as bars and restaurants and gas stations, that depend on snowmobilers to provide them with winter cash flow.

"Those business owners are the customers of everybody else," Clark said. "If they're not doing well, they're not going to spend."

Doug Yeomans
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On a positive note, every year with little or no salt on the road grants my vehicle an extra year of life.

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