The past six months have been hard on the region. As the scars of Tropical Storm Irene continue to heal, a new challenge has lingered in the area for the winter season: a dearth of snow.
So far, the 2011-12 winter has brought only 63 inches of snow to Wilmington, according to chief operator of the Wilmington Wastewater Department John Lazelle, and the low-snow winter has scared away tourists, one of the town’s most essential resources.
The last similar winter occurred in 2006, when, according to Wilmington’s 2011 Annual Report, the town received only 48.8 inches of snow. The total amount spiked the following year to 136.5 inches and then declined until 2011, when it spiked again.
Businesses in the area are reacting differently to the warm winter.
“We’re off our normal revenues, obviously,” says Kelly Pawlak, general manager of Mount Snow. “It’s what being in the ski business is all about.”
Pawlak and the entire Mount Snow team, however, have aggressively combated the hand that nature has dealt the area, responding with the rollout of “the most powerful snowmaking system in the state,” according to a press release from December 20. Thanks to the system, the resort is operational, with most trails groomed and prepared to welcome skiers and snowboarders.
Adam Grinold, interim executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, cites the operation at Mount Snow as a critical asset to the area’s entire business community. “We have a committed mountain that keeps people coming,” he says.
However, many business owners in Wilmington see the low snowfall as a small part of the broader problem of perception. The images of destroyed buildings and washed-out roads produced during Tropical Irene have stuck in people’s minds, they claim, and convincing non-Wilmington residents that the town is up and running
has posed a complicated challenge. Add a snowless winter into the equation, and it becomes even more difficult to attract potential customers to the area.
“We’ve gotten kicked while we were down,” says John Pilcher, of the Wilmington Inn. His business has struggled to maintain the level of reservations that he would ideally hope to see during the winter. “The last-minute reservations are not materializing,” he says. “Instead of last-minute bookings, I had two cancellations last week.”
Steve Jalbert of Apres Vous in Wilmington describes the issue as “a twofold problem. There’s a lack of traffic to the mountain, and there’s a lack of open businesses in town.” Skiers at Mount Snow, he says, “don’t want to come anywhere near Wilmington.”
Sheila Osler, co-owner of the Old Red Mill, has experienced a similar phenomenon: “Visitors to the valley don’t know things are functioning yet.”
The perception problem extends beyond Irene. Mount Snow has had a hard time convincing “casual skiers”—that is, non-season pass holders—that the mountain has anything to offer other than mud.“We’ve spent every penny of our marketing budget trying to let people know we’re functional,” Pawlak says of Mount Snow. “I don’t think you could ever give up on advertising and marketing; that would be foolish. But skiers have to believe there’s snow.”
Businesses still recovering from Irene have taken some of the largest hits. Steve Butler, owner of North Star Bowl on Route 100, has had a particularly disheartening experience this winter. “This weather is best for my business, and normally I’d be having a banner year,” he says. Under normal circumstances, disappointed skiers would pour into his business to use the bowling lanes.
However, North Star is still in the process of getting its lanes repaired in the wake of Irene.
On the other hand, some businesses, including Mount Snow, have found a silver lining in the winter; the warm weather and snow-free ground represent opportunities for unencumbered rebuilding. The lack of snow also means a lack of springtime flooding after a thaw.
In addition, Grinold and the chamber of commerce have been taking steps to change potential visitors’ perceptions of the valley, producing YouTube videos that showcase local shops, inns, and restaurants. The chamber’s work is part of an effort to change the top Internet search results for the word “Wilmington.”
“Wilmington is rebounding,” says Grinold. In the videos, “Business owners speak to the quality of the experience here, the great outdoor experience, the restaurants, the shops. This little southern Vermont village is back on its feet and taking on the Goliaths of Google and YouTube.”In spite of the adversity posed to the town, many businesses are succeeding and reopening. Jezebel’s Restaurant and Maple Leaf Malt & Brewing are the latest in a line of businesses welcoming customers back through their doors. Such progress is encouraging news for the entire region, from Mount Snow to merchants in Wilmington.
“Any sign of life is good for us,” says Jalbert.