Brown winter shuts out snowmobile recreation, businesses

Rick Crow
Rick Crow is owner of Walker Power Equipment, a Polaris and Ski-Doo snowmobile dealership in Walker. Crow says sales of snowmobiles in October and November were great. But since then, sales and service have come to a standstill.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Every January, snowmobiles are typically everywhere in much of Minnesota — bouncing along ditches and trails, pulled on trailers or parked at hotels and restaurants.

But this year is different. Except for the far northeastern corner of the state, there's not enough snow on which to ride. The machines that are a big part of winter tourism in Minnesota have been mostly idle.

For communities that rely on snowmobile tourism, a snowless season means the loss of millions of dollars in economic activity.

"Here we are sitting, waiting," said Rick Crow, who owns a Polaris and Ski-Doo dealership in Walker, Minn. "It's going to be 40 degrees."

Crow said pre-season snowmobile sales at his dealership were great last fall. But since then, he said, sales have crawled to a standstill. Parts and service are way down, too.

If Minnesota does not see snow on the ground in the next few weeks, Crow said he may have to lay off some employees.

Meanwhile, he said, some avid snowmobile enthusiasts are taking their business elsewhere.

Polaris dealership in Walker
The lack of snow is hurting winter tourism in Minnesota. These brand new snowmobiles sit idle outside a Polaris dealership in Walker. The machines were purchased last fall by a local resort, but there isn't enough snow to drive them off the lot.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"We've got people going to Michigan," Crow said. "We've got people already out in Yellowstone and the mountains riding, so the diehards right now are having to haul them. You live in Minnesota in the wintertime, you're supposed to have snow."

The lack of snow is affecting a calendar of snowmobile events that in most years is bustling in January. Organizers have canceled trail riding events across the state and that is hurting local economies.

The most recent cancellations involved a veteran's appreciation ride that was scheduled in the town of Madelia, southwest of the Twin Cities, this past weekend, said Nancy Hanson, business coordinator of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.

"We were bringing 100 people down to stay overnight two nights and eat meals there," Hanson said. "That's a tremendous loss for that community for just that one weekend. I mean, every little business benefits from snowmobilers being out and about."

A 2008 University of Minnesota study found that snowmobiling contributes nearly $130 million dollars to local economies. Minnesota has more than 250 snowmobile clubs, and leads the nation in the number of registered machines.

Winter accounts for nearly a quarter of all tourism in the state, and snowmobilers are a big part of that, said Ingrid Schneider, director of the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center, which conducted the study.

"Snowmobilers have taken an average of 18 trips in Minnesota, and seven of them are overnight," Schneider said. "So if they're not able to get out, that impacts us all."

The Brainerd Lakes area is usually a destination for snowmobile getaways. But local tourism officials say with no snow on ground, resorts, hotels and restaurants that cater to snowmobilers are feeling the pinch.

Polaris snowmobiles in the showroom at Northway Sports in East Bethel, Minn., Monday, Dec. 5, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce CEO Lisa Paxton said businesses are fortunate that the slump followed a strong holiday retail and lodging season, despite the lack of snow. She said the mild weather will require businesses that count on snow tourism to find more creative ways of attracting customers.

"For example, the restaurants are incorporating more live entertainment to bring people out," Paxton said. "Some of the properties that have indoor amenities are really enhancing those indoor amenities and creating more packages."

While the economic challenges of having no snow are apparent throughout much of the Midwest, there are isolated regions that are in better shape. Members of a snowmobile club in Grand Marais report they have four to eight inches of snow on the ground and people are still out riding their machines.

But even that snow cover could diminish today, when temperatures in Minnesota could reach into the 40s and even the 50s.

Temperatures will fall to more normal levels beginning Wednesday. But there is no big snowfall in the forecast.

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