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When dreary is good

The growth that Griff Bell's boat rental company could have had this season is gone with the rain - he's seen a day of wet weather for every day of sunshine and sailing.

Tent rentals, on the other hand, are booming. No one wants a washed-out outdoor party.

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"They call the day before: 'It's going to rain, I need something!'" said Terry Chiveral, a manager for ABC Party and Tent Rental Center in Baltimore, which is getting an unusual number of last-minute reservations.

The near-biblical downpours this spring and summer have brought headaches for fair-weather ventures, while hot-tub builders, tanning salons and lawn mower operators bask in water-propelled profits.

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Atmospheric swings have affected commerce going back to nomadic tribesmen, though the impact isn't generally as sweeping in these modern times of climate-controlled offices. But this year is the second-rainiest on record, with more wet days to date than any year since 1889 - an over-abundance of water that has shaken up the normal seasonal roster of winners and losers. Even some solidly indoor companies have felt the pinch.

"We clearly saw that, until July, retailers were having trouble selling seasonal merchandise, particularly in the Northeast, because of the cool, wet weather," said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics for Economy.com in West Chester, Pa.

"They bought more merchandise than they sold, so they ended up discounting more than they would have liked," he added. "Virtually anything - too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, is likely to cause some problems."

Too wet is a reversal of fortunes for some after the state's long drought. But an unfortunate minority suffers in both extremes.

Last year nothing would grow for Michael Wilcom, a lifelong dairy farmer in Frederick County who raises hay and alfalfa for feed. This year the crops are growing - he just can't get them harvested in time. It's a bad idea to roll over soggy fields with heavy equipment.

"Last year was the worst dry year I've ever seen, and this is the worst wet year," Wilcom said.

The rainfall at Baltimore-Washington International Airport has been more than 11.05 inches above normal this year, according to the National Weather Service. Rain fell on 109 of those days, including two-thirds of May, and half of June and July.

"Whenever they're calling for rain, it's pretty much been dead, even if it's not raining," said David Brice, pool manager at Olde Mill Swim Club in Millersville.

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There's clearly pent-up demand. Any day the forecast is good, "it's been packed," Brice said.

Bell, who owns South River Boat Rentals at Pier 7 Marina in Edgewater, figures that proceeds would have grown 20 percent this year if the beginning of summer hadn't been so dour. Sailing enthusiasts tried to make up for lost time when the weather was halfway decent, but that simply has put him on track to stay even with last year, Bell said.

"Our season's only eight months long at the best," he said. "We lost two solid months. ... A 'chance of storms' seems pretty nice now compared to definite rain."

The hot, dry weather last summer was excellent for Bell's business.

But Julian Beard, owner and operator of Country Sunshine Lawn Service Inc. in Annapolis, isn't complaining about the turnaround. He's had enough sun to ply his trade, and the rainy days are like money in the bank.

"It's been a great godsend, really," Beard said. "Makes the grass grow. The more it grows, the more you cut."

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Rain also has sent new customers scurrying to All Seasons Tanning Salon in Linthicum, deprived of the opportunity to lie out in their back yards. Owner Ellen Damareck said her busy season - February through June - was especially busy.

"They'll come in to get the sun," she said. "It makes everybody feel better."

Hot-tub sales are way up at Hohne Pools-Sundance Spas in Parkville, and President Gary Hohne credits the weather for the double-digit growth.

The rain hasn't even stopped customers from ordering pools. But construction - alas - requires good weather.

"The people have been patient, they've been understanding to some degree," Hohne said, "but when the sun comes out for three or four days in a row, they all wonder 'Why aren't you here?' at the same time."


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