Battered ski industry sweating for snowfall
Seattle Times business reporter
Summit at Snoqualmie: New footbridge spanning Denny Creek connecting the main parking lot to Alpental.
Stevens Pass: Remodeled and renamed the Soft Landing Bar into the Foggy Goggle lounge; two new 100-foot conveyor lifts on the Beacon Hill section of Daisy.
Crystal Mountain: Built $6.2 million Campbell Basin Lodge, a one-level, mid-mountain, 12,500-square-foot day lodge.
Mount Baker: Repaved the top 15 miles of the Mount Baker Highway.
Mission Ridge: New high-speed quad.
Source: Ski Washington
Kathleen Goyette's cat is twice as fluffy this fall. And outside her home in Yakima, in the central Cascades, chipmunks are busy burrowing and the elk are running amok.
"All signs are pointing to a normal ski season," says Goyette, marketing director for White Pass Ski Resort, at the summit of Highway 12, three hours from Seattle.
Meteorologist Larry Schick agrees, predicting an early start — before Thanksgiving — based on snow already appearing about 4,500 feet in the mountains.
A normal Northwest winter may not be good enough for the Pacific Northwest's ski industry, however. Washington's 10 ski areas are still suffering from last winter's disastrous season.
The resorts reported their worst year on record, with ski visits down 78 percent from peak levels of 2.1 million visitors in 2001-2002, when resorts reported a base of between 100 and 300 inches of snow.
The best way to overcome the lingering glumness, industry observers day, is snowfall — plenty of it and early on.
"It's the best marketing tool ski areas have," says Ralf Garrison, founder of the Mountain Travel Research Project, an industry consultant in Denver.
To help calm fears of a repeat, ski areas are offering discounts and other incentives to lure back their core clientele: holders of season passes, many of whom took a financial hit of their own last year forking over hundreds of dollars for just a few hours of skiing.
The Summit at Snoqualmie is giving its customers the most relief. Holders of its Big S passes, who make up half of the ski area's half-million visitors, can extend their 2004-05 passes for free through this season. The pass cost between $289 and $469.
Although the privately owned ski area doesn't release financial information, the price of its generosity was a "huge drain" on the bottom line, said Julia Maurer, vice president of marketing for parent company Booth Creek Resorts in Truckee, Calif.
"We sweated this one, but at the end of the day we felt it was necessary to protect the integrity of our product, so that a cyclical glitch in the weather pattern didn't affect long-term relationships with our customers," Maurer said.
The Summit mitigated the worst effects of the bad season last year by leaning on sister resorts, Northstar and Sierra in Lake Tahoe, Calif., which absorbed scores of laid-off seasonal employees and honored the Big S passes. The same was true for Crystal Mountain, part of the Boyne USA chain that operates ski areas in Montana, Utah and British Columbia.
"The beauty of being part of a larger organization is that the financial burden is spread out whenever weather anomalies occur," said Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, in Hood River, Ore.
At the depth of last winter's crisis, all ski areas in Washington, regardless of size or ownership, downsized to a skeletal staff and reduced expenditures to a bare minimum.
But the financial impact hit independently owned and operated ski areas hardest, analysts said.
For example, a 70 percent drop in ski visits last season forced Stevens Pass, owned by Seattle's Harbor Properties, to shelve investment plans that included replacing a chair lift. "We'll be in recovery mode for a few years," said John Gifford, Stevens Pass general manager.
Mount Baker, which is owned by a consortium of more than 200 stockholders, also held back this summer on some $2.5 million in capital improvements.
The ski area was saved from an even worse fate, says general manager Duncan Howat, by virtue of its location in the shadow of its namesake volcano, a snow magnet even in drought years, which allowed it to stay open a state best 117 days.
Mount Baker reported snow depths of 79 inches in mid-April, its highest of the season. That compares with the 168 inches recorded in April 2002 and 290 inches in April 1999.
Farther along the ski-industry food chain, two ski shops, local chain Olympic Sports and Issaquah Ski & Bike, closed for good because of a sharp drop-off in sales. Seattle's 20-plus ski schools also suffered huge losses.
At Bellevue-based ski shop Sturtevant's, pre-season sales this year are down about 30 percent.
"We're waiting around for all those people who were skiing on rocks and grass and need a tune-up," said general manager Tracy Gibbons.
As bad as 2004-05 ski season was, the long-term trends are perhaps even more alarming.
According to a University of Washington study, rising temperatures have caused the snowpack in the Cascades to fall an average 35 percent since 1950, and the snowpack is expected to thaw further, to less than half its 20th-century levels, by 2050.
The same study predicts the length of a ski season at the Summit at Snoqualmie, whose base elevation is about 3,000 feet, could decline 28 percent by 2025.
"Last winter came as a shock to a lot of people, but unfortunately it's what winter is increasingly going to look like," said the study's author, Alan Hamlet, a research scientist at UW's Climate Impacts Group.
Pacific Northwest ski areas are particularly vulnerable to climate change because base elevations tend to be low and winter temperatures hover around the freezing point.
Given the bleak outlook, what little investment did take place this summer was focused on shoring up snowmaking capacity.
White Pass spent $180,000 to install an additional four snowmaking guns at lower elevations.
"If this equipment had been in place last year, we could've stayed open three times as long," said Goyette. Instead, the company lost $3 million through March of last year.
Rarely needed a decade ago, ski areas are grooming trails during the summer to prevent rocks and brush from poking through fast melting snowpacks.
"Going forward, climate change will definitely guide investment decisions," said Stevens Pass' Gifford.
Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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