Abnormal winter affecting business, recreation

“Nonexistent,” is the word Jon George, proprietor of Marv’s True Value, used last week as he talked about the sales this winter of snow shovels, toboggans, snow blowers and other items at his store that would normally be significant this season.

But as Twin Cities meteorologist Paul Douglas stated in his column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Tuesday, the winter of 2011-12 has so far produced a “measly 10 inches of snow.” Douglas also forecasted temperatures at close to 40 degrees by today (Thursday) and Friday.

That’s a big change from the 2010-11 winter’s 44 inches of snow, Douglas noted. His forecast of temperatures in the 40s has also been common this winter.

Scott Daniels of Princeton would surely like the snow and ice that would go with a normal winter. He bought a snowmobile recently and is making payments on an ice fishing house he purchased earlier. Daniels hasn’t used either this season.

Joel Thompson, member of the area’s Mystic Riders Snowmobile club, says that snowmobilers need at least six inches for a base to snowmobile on. The club spent many hours this past year removing branches and fallen trees from the approximately 150 miles of snowmobile trail that the club maintains. “It’s just pretty disheartening” after all that work not to have snow to use those trails, Thompson said.

“We’re maybe lucky if we get a couple weeks of riding the way its going this year,” Thompson said. “Last year was a good year.”

Jeff Johnson was snowplowing with his pickup-mounted snowplow on Sunday in the parking lot of the Family Pathways thrift store following what looked like about two inches of snow that had fallen. It turned out that this was the first time that he had been out with his snowplow this season, Johnson explaining that the snow more than a month ago was not worth plowing. That snow melted not long after it fell.

Johnson cleans duct work for heating systems as a regular job and by this time of the year’s cycle that has slowed down and so he has counted on snowplowing for income in the winter. Johnson, like other snowplow operators, has bucks tied up in a pickup truck that he says has to have a minimum weight of 2,500 pounds, and there is the cost of the plow. What he needs for his snowplow income, he said, is regular snows from here on out for the rest of the winter.

Zimmerman resident Rich Chambers, who works in the maintenance department at Fairview Northland in Princeton for his full-time job, has a year-round ground maintenance business on the side where he contracts with people. Having a contract like the one he has for an industrial place in Coon Rapids has worked out especially well for him so far this winter, he said. The way the contract works, he explains, he is paid a set amount in the contract no matter how much snow there is to plow.

Chad Richer, salesperson at NRD Sports RV and Marine, which opened about seven months ago a few blocks south of the signal lights on Highway 169 at Zimmerman, said last week that snowmobile sales have “been steady” there, but now customers are switching to ATV purchases earlier and are looking at boats now. He acknowledged that his snowmobile sales would have been greater had this winter had sufficient snow. He added that NRD has started to discount its snowmobiles earlier, versus doing that closer to the end of the season.

The snowmobile and ATV track south of Zimmerman on Highway 169 in the Elk River area has been one outlet for snowmobilers where artificial snow machines have been providing what is needed there.

It’s also part of the snowmobile culture, Richer added, that some snowmobilers will “follow the snow,” meaning they will go to places some distance away that have snow.

Local Princeton businessman Troy Minske, an avid snowmobiler who has taken frequent trips over the years to Wyoming to snowmobile, is one of those. But he said the snow this winter in parts of some western states isn’t as deep as it normally is this time of year.

That can pose a safety hazard because there might not be enough base to cover rocky ground in places, Minske said.

Mark Nutt of the Princeton area, does contract snowplowing for a church and a business in Princeton, but doesn’t worry much about the amount of snow for that since his main livelihood is pumping out septic tanks.

Nutt noted that a snow cover is good for insulating sewer pipes. When there is a lot of snow, he said, he wishes more people would mark the stand pipe at their septic tank so it can be found easier.


Savings for public works

Princeton city finance director Steve Jackson said there is definitely a savings for the city in snow removal this winter. He just couldn’t put a dollar amount on it, explaining that the books do not have a breakdown for that.

Bob Gerold, who directs the city’s public works department, said this week that he has had salt and sand trucks out only three to four times so far this winter. “There has been a considerable amount of savings in fuel and not sending crews out as much,” Gerold said. The snowfalls that have occurred have been so little in amount each time, he noted, that the city snowplow crew had only plowed main thoroughfares like Rum River Drive, First Street, Twenty-first Avenue and Northland Boulevard.

Normally, when the snowfall is heavy enough, the plows go through every city street.

One of the extra expenses that also can come up during a winter with heavy snow, Gerold said, is overtime wages. The amount of that, he said, depends on the timing and amount of the snowfalls. There was a little overtime this winter but that was because of the holidays, he said.

Proprietors at the few auto repair and parts businesses that were contacted for this story said they are doing all right business-wise this winter. But they did agree that sales of cold and snow-related items would be much better in a normal winter.

It’s the extreme temperatures that break down the weak links in motor vehicles and snow also gets drivers interested in better tires, said Wayne Nelson, co-owner of Hytech Automotive in Princeton.

Nelson’s tow calls are down 30-40 percent, he said.

What the rest of the winter will bring is for forecasters to talk about. But Thompson, with the Mystic Riders Snowmobile Club, commented that January and February are typically not  big snow months. “And March has a fair amount but usually that snow doesn’t stick around,” he said. “And if there is no base to start with, it will pretty much melt fast.”

Richer, at NRD Sports RV & Marine, was more optimistic, predicting there will likely be some good snowmobiling yet this winter.