A 'ski storm' helps New England

The long-awaited snowstorm that pelted the Northeast over the weekend has eased -- but not erased -- a winter economic drought throughout the tourist-dependent region.

Tourist officials are hoping for another "blast" to recoup early season losses, while agricultural and water resource officials are nervously scanning the horizon for precipitation to "recharge" water supplies.

Despite the recent two-to-eight-inch snowfall that blanketed the region, snow accumulations so far this year remain about one-quarter of the normal level.

"Nobody is raising the red flag yet," says Charles Kennedy, director of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management's water resources division, "but who knows what is going to happen between now and April?"

The outlook so far:

* Water supplies: Although there are no "red alerts" yet, water resource officials say shortages could arise this summer if no snow or rain comes within the next two months.

Civil defense officials in Vermont and New Hampshire are readying emergency plans -- including lining up tank trucks and pumps -- should the lack of precipitation persist. Some Vermont communities, worried about adequate supplies for firefighting, already are taking steps to conserve water.

"If we don't get some substantial snowfall within the next six weeks, there are going to be some problems," says Stephen Lathrop, a water resource manager with the New England River Basins Commission.

Also nervous are some New England farmers, who rely on a winter snow blanket to insulate against deep ground frosts and saturate the soil for spring planting.

* Tourism: Already smarting from a sluggish season last summer, many resorts, restaurants, and hotels that cater to skiers -- although buoyed by a surge this past weekend -- are down 15 to 70 percent in business from a year ago, and many are laying off workers.

"Lodges, ski shops, and general stores have taken a tremendous beating -- and so have the states," says Scott Van Pelt, travel program director for the New England Regional Commission.

The winter slump, Mr. Van Pelt adds, makes tourist-oriented businesses all the more financially vulnerable to any fuel shortages or dips in trade this summer.

* Ski operators: Even as some Eastern ski slopes boomed this past weekend, other operators were still partially closed or shutdown altogether. The recent snowfall brought no long-term relief, observers say.

Ticket sales at ski resorts in the Midwest and Northeast were down an average of 50 percent through mid-January from a year ago, according to a recent spot survey by the National Ski Areas Association.

Few industries are likely to go out of business, however. Observers say many of the nation's more than 700 ski areas have graduated from "mom and pop" operations into multimillion-dollar corporate enterprises and are financially better equipped to handle a slack year. A minor drought just a few years ago led many operators to invest in snow-making equipment.

"The industry is basically taking an industrial approach to the problem now, as opposed to 10 years ago when it was 'push the panic button,'" observes James Branch, an industry consultant with Sno-engineering Inc., in Franconia, N.H. "The industry has the strength to trim sails and understands the meaning of financial planning."

Already many operators are seeking loans through banks and the Small Business Administration, which is offering low-interest help to businesses in eight states that can prove economic injury as a result of the lack of snow.

In the long run, says Mr. Branch, this year's slump will likely accelerate a trend toward mergers in the industry and prompt more industry-wide promotion moves.

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