Record Snowfall Takes Toll on Region's Economy

FLAKE FALLOUT

AN unusally cold and fierce winter has had a dampening effect on New England's economic recovery.

This year's frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall have contributed to slowdowns in construction, retail sales, and a drop in state tax revenues, among other things, economists say.

Indeed, snowfall caused employees to miss work days, kept shoppers out of malls, and diners away from restaurants.

This winter is the snowiest on record for Boston, with 89.4 inches so far. The previous record was 89.2 inches in 1947-48.

``This is an exceptional winter. Housing construction has been delayed, retail sales have been postponed,'' says Roger Brinner, chief economist at DRI/McGraw-Hill in Lexington, Mass. ``I suspect the nation will take a hit, and New England will have the hardest burden from the snow.''

Despite the economic offset, losses will be temporary except for certain discretionary retail purchases, economists say. ``People just won't buy those winter clothes they could have bought,'' Mr. Brinner says. But some retailers did report sale gains in February after a lackluster Christmas.

Other industries were harder hit. Northern New England ski resorts have had a surprisingly disappointing season.

Tom Meyers, Vermont Ski Areas Association spokesman, says cold weather and snowfall during holiday weekends kept many people off roads and slopes. ``The general consensus through most of January is: Never was there so much snow skied on by so few people,'' he says.

Other regional states are scraping for extra money for snow removal and road repair. Rhode Island communities may be forced to raise taxes or cut spending due to added costs of repairing roads, says Leonard Lardaro, a University of Rhode Island economist. Local snow-removal budgets are also strained in Maine and Vermont.

Yet, there are hopeful signs for the now-recovering economy. From June 1993 to January 1994, Massachusetts gained 80,700 jobs; Connecticut, 7,300 jobs in January alone.

Employers are optimistic. A survey of 800 employers by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts shows its Business Confidence Index held steady at 56.4 percent in February. ``There is no deterioration in confidence,'' says Wayne Ayers, the chief economist for the Bank of Boston. ``If anything, the outlook remains better than it has been in a long time.... Certainly, there has been some lost output and lost hours, but this is not terribly fundamental.''

In fact, some benefited from Mother Nature. John Copanos, maintenance supervisor for Northeastern Construction in Framingham, Mass., says his plowing division has done very well. ``We got one job right after another. It's almost been like a [full-time] job.''

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