El Nino winter heats builders But lack of snow chills shoveling business of Columbia teen; Weather

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was the best of winters. It was the worst of winters.

For homebuilders, golf courses and general merchandise retailers, the winter of 1997-1998, among the mildest on record, was the best of times.

But the mild weather left some on the losing end, as well. For anyone in the business of hawking snow shovels or heavy winter coats or the dirty work of removing snow from walkways and parking lots, it was a winter of discontent indeed.

Bill Luther and his fast growing home construction outfit, Gemcraft Homes Inc., were on the winning end. The historically mild winter meant good financial times for his company and many other builders in the Baltimore-Washington region.

The Forest Hill firm, which builds homes in Harford and Cecil counties, was able to begin construction on about 50 new homes between December and early March, a much faster pace than the 30 the company hoped to build over the winter when construction was expected to crawl at a snail's pace.

"The mild winter has meant more money in everyone's pocket," said Luther, founder and president of Gemcraft. "It's been great for our company."

Carpenters, painters and other home construction subcontractors who normally work a couple of days a week during the winter off-season were big beneficiaries of the mild winter, said Luther. Many could find work seven days a week if they wanted it.

New home starts throughout the Baltimore metro area moved at an unprecedented pace, thanks to low interest rates and mild weather, said John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"Spring arrived in January," said Kortecamp. "Rather than slowing down for the winter, most builders just plowed ahead. It's been tremendous."

Kortecamp's not far off in his assessment.

The National Weather Service says the winter of 1997-1998 stacked up as one of the 10 warmest in 127 years of record-keeping.

Only one winter in that period saw less snow than the 1.1 inches that winter in the city as of Friday, when spring arrived. Average temperature for the area this winter: about 40 degrees.

Not everyone, though, was thrilled with the winter that never was.

Just ask Tommy Guilarte. He had banked on snow, sleet and ice to launch his snow-shoveling service. Guilarte, 16, thought he had a sure-fire money-making venture when he advertised the service in his Columbia neighborhood beginning in November. But the almost snowless winter kept the $500 snow blower he bought shelved and useless.

"I am so disappointed," said Guilarte. "I make about $250 a summer mowing lawns. I know I would have made more than that shoveling snow."

Chris Hoffman, vice president, of Brooke Valley Landscaping Inc. can empathize. Snow removal for business park and apartment complex clients usually accounts for 25 percent of annual revenue. Not this year.

Only one of the Randallstown company's 10 snow-removal trucks was deployed this winter -- and that was for a minor road salting job in Owings Mills.

Hoffman hopes there will be an upside for business with spring's arrival. "Maybe customers will have more money for landscaping because they didn't pay for snow removal," he said.

However, Dick Keehfus, owner of Triangle Auto Parts in Ellicott City, said it will take a lot more than the coming of spring before his business bounces back from the bite that the mild weather took out of his wallet.

Winter usually means plenty of car repair work for his shop, such as muffler and suspension system replacements, and sales of car batteries, tire chains and other auto supplies. This winter was a bust.

"We're living off of wiper blades," Keehfus said.

Business was off 35 percent this winter, causing him to pare his staff to seven from 12. Keehfus also cut back on other operating expenses. He let go an accounting firm and took over his own books to shave costs.

Some big businesses also are expecting the mild weather to have an effect on earnings.

For example, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. expects earnings for the utility to be down during the first quarter of this year, but says it's too early to say by how much, said Peggy Mulloy, a spokeswoman.

Electric sales in January and February were down 9 percent.

But, the recent cold snap and the fact that the utility didn't have to pay work crews much overtime for emergency projects, such as restoring downed power lines, could counterbalance earnings declines, said Mulloy.

Big retailers report mixed results from the mild weather.

While the lack of winter weather -- and a shot of consumer confidence and low interest rates -- encouraged people to get out and shop, sales of seasonal clothing such as sweaters and heavy coats were dead.

Snow shovels and ice melting salts didn't do much better. Many stores dumped them at huge discounts. The exception: Home Depot, the Atlanta home supplies giant. It's distribution muscle saved the day.

When New England and upstate New York got clobbered by an ice storm in January, the huge chain's retailers in the Baltimore-Washington area shipped snow shovels, electric generators, packages of ice melting chemicals and other seasonal items to Northeastern stores. The items weren't selling well in mid-Atlantic stores but were desperately needed up north, said Kristina Blauvelt, a Home Depot spokeswoman.

Winter clothing retailers weren't quite so fortunate.

"Some of the clothing retailers really took it on the chin this winter," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report in Scotch Plains, N.J.

The only way department stores and stores specializing in coats, such as Burlington Coat Factory, could move some winter clothing was through "very, very deep mark downs," said Barnard.

"This, of course, was fabulous, for anyone shopping for a winter coat," he said.

Spring clothing merchandise is selling very well, however, said hTC Barnard -- a silver lining for those retailers who had to dump winter stock at bargain prices.

Also, said Barnard, outdoor and garden supplies retailers are seeing merchandise move earlier this year. Carroll Gardens in Westminster can attest to that.

"Business-wise, we've had a very early spring," said Kim Warehime, the garden center's manager.

Customers are buying trees, shrubs, and lawn fertilizer as if it's already mid-spring, said Warehime. "Items customers usually buy in late March, they bought in early February," she said.

And golf courses have benefited from the winter that never was as duffers, ever ready to keep their game up to par, have packed driving ranges and fairways.

For example, Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Baltimore City has averaged about 180 players daily, while Diamond Ridge Golf Course in Woodlawn has averaged about 50 players daily, compared with the usual 20 in the winter.

"We're open year-round, but typically January and February are pretty dead months," said Greg Stein, the course's assistant golf professional. "Not this year."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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