Mild winter clouds some businesses

Owner Jeffrey Pratt of Schneider's hardware store on Wyndhurst Ave. is returning the majority of the winter snow removal items to storage.
Owner Jeffrey Pratt of Schneider's hardware store on Wyndhurst Ave. is returning the majority of the winter snow removal items to storage. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

Marylanders remember snow piled into mountains in parking lots two winters ago. This season, the white heaps are tons of rock salt stockpiled in the port and around the state to melt the missing snow and ice.

As people snap up potted flowers and enjoy late winter temperatures leaping toward 70 degrees Thursday, snow shovels and bags of ice-melt gather dust in hardware stores. Lower electrical and heating bills offer some relief for household pocketbooks faced with soaring gasoline prices.

Millions of dollars remain unspent in government budgets for storm cleanup, but retailers and ski resorts face lost sales for cold-weather gear and lift tickets.

This winter will go down as one of the mildest on record, with temperatures more than 5 degrees above average. The 1.8 inches of snow measured so far this winter is the least since 1972, with 2.3 inches tallied in winter 2001-2002 a close second. It's a reversal from recent winters' wind chills and snow dumps.

It's also an unwelcome change for businesses whose sales rise when snow falls.

"Overall, it was challenging," said Anne Weimer, marketing director for Liberty Mountain. "Every time we'd have some cold, it would be followed up by warmer days in the 50s."

The resort, just over the Pennsylvania line from Emmitsburg, typically closes in mid-March, or later. This year, skiers and snowboarders took their last runs Sunday.

The mountain's snow-making system had all of its trails open in part of January and most of February. But with a late start in December, Liberty lost three weekends that, in a normal season, would have drawn 4,000 to 6,000 people paying $30 to $70 each for lift tickets.

Weimer declined to release specific financial information, but called the winter "disappointing."

The same goes for businesses that profit from snow cleanup.

The phone rings incessantly at Lombard Hardware in Upper Fells Point when a snowstorm is in the forecast as neighbors call to ask owner Lillian Crowley to set aside shovels or bags of ice-melt. But the stock of winter gear Crowley bought for last winter still has not been depleted this season.

There's plenty of stock left over at Schneider Paint & Hardware in Wyndhurst, too. "I've got pansies and primroses out front," owner Jeffrey Pratt said.

He prominently displays sleds and shovels in November and December, but sold only about a dozen of each all season, he said. In the winter of 2009-2010, which dumped a record 77 inches of snow, he sold 60 sleds in a week.

"I'm at the point where I don't really want the winter now," Pratt said.

Road salt scattered before snowstorms helps drive winter business for car washes. It's too cold to get out the hose in the driveway, but a big snow sends 300 to 400 cars a day to Columbia Car Wash on Little Patuxent Parkway to wash away the white streaks and dirty slush. Fifty to 80 cars pass through on a normal day, owner Ryan Daggle said.

Most of the road salt remains in heaps, though. The State Highway Administration has an average year's worth of salt, 260,000 tons, in its domes across Maryland.

It has backed things up at the port of Baltimore, where salt cargo hit a record 1.8 million tons in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. That could cause a problem next year for Rukert Terminals Corp., the Canton stevedoring and warehousing company that imports salt cargo locally, largely from Mexico and Chile.

"The real bottleneck comes next season if it happens again," said John Coulter, Rukert's president, of the mild winter. "We wouldn't be able to bring any new ships throughout the fall and winter next year."

But the stockpiles won't hurt governments. In recent years, counties have been walloped with high snow removal costs, not to mention other budget woes.

The highway administration spent an average $68 million each of the past five years on road salting but just $31 million so far this year, 40 percent of it in Western Maryland, spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar said. Its budget for the current year is $36 million, but the agency typically goes back to state officials to seek more money in $5 million increments as needed.

Baltimore City budgeted $1.28 million for salt but has spent only $63,000 to scatter 1,100 tons of it before two threats of snow, said Adrienne Barnes, a transportation department spokeswoman. Baltimore County has spent $1.3 million of its $5.9 million storm budget on snow, the lowest in a decade, said David Fidler, a public works spokesman.

"This season has been fantastic," Barnes said.

Many heads of household would agree. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. told customers last month to expect to spend $100 to $200 less to heat their homes thanks to this warmer winter.

At Dogma, a local pet store chain, snow isn't needed to drive sales of $45 doggie coats – just cold weather. But that's been rare this winter. The average temperature of 40.7 degrees from Dec. 1 through Feb. 29 ranks as the seventh-warmest on record.

Pet winter gear isn't as big a chunk of sales as leashes, collars, toys and travel equipment are in the warmer months, Dogma owner Scott Stanton said. But business has been noticeably less brisk.

"People want to keep their pets warm all the time," not just in snowstorms, Stanton said. "They're not shivering."

That likely won't change any time soon. Long-term forecasts by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center call for warmer-than-average temperatures for the next three months.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.



Baltimore winter in review

Average snowfall: 20.2 inches

Winter 2011-2012 snowfall: 1.8 inches

Lowest winter snowfall on record: 1949-1950, 0.7 inches

Average winter temperature: 35.1 degrees

Winter 2011-2012 average temperature: 40.7 degrees

Warmest average winter temperature on record: 1931-1932, 45.3 degrees

Latest measurable snowfall: April 28, 1898; 0.1 inches

Source: National Weather Service

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