Ski area operators here in the Mount Washington Valley appealed last week for emergency federal loans to carry them through the worst snow drought in 100 years. Large area operators throughout Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire estimate a loss of between $30 million and $40 million in ski business. Auxilliary businesses may count twice that in lost sales.
"I've been coming here since the '30s. I don't remember a green winter," shop owner Robert Badger mused.
North Conway usually is blanketed by two feet of white powder by now. This winter the resort town looks out on black forests, bare granite and ski slopes of dry brown grass.
"My business is off 75 to 80 percent, and we're making snow," said Charles Frasier, manager of the nearby Mount Cranmore ski area.
Half of the large ski areas in New England are making artificial snow. But unusually warm temperatures and frequent rains have made it an expensive and inefficient alternative to real snow. Terrain on Cranmore's highest and most challenging slopes is too rough to cover artificially. Frasier is spending $800 to $1,000 a day to keep snow on 40 of his slopes' 150 acres. Rain has washed the snow away three times.
"I usually get 2,500 skiers on a good Saturday," Frasier said. "This year we're getting 500. They can't move around. It's marginal skiing."
"For the first time, I envy the area that can't make snow. We're operating at a loss," said Fern Pontbriand, general manager of Lost Valley, a Maine ski area. "We open three or four days and then shut down. We're operating at a 50 percent loss."
Maine Governor Joseph Brennan asked the Small Business Administration last Wednesday to make Economic Dislocation loans available to ski operators and other snow-dependent businesses. The program, enacted in 1978, would lend businesses up to $100,000 at 8 1/4 percent interest. The loans could be used to meet operating costs and payment of short-term notes. Ski operators, restaurateurs and the hotel industry are requesting the same aid in Vermont and New Hampshire.
In all three states, snow is big business. Skiing in New Hampshire alone brings in $200 million a year, 5 percent of the state's annual product.
The SBA loans may not be able to hlep some ski operations. Last winter a string of rainy weekends and five weeks of below-freezing temperatures cut deeply into winter trade. Long gas lines last summer and a fluke snowstorm at the height of October's foliage also hurt resort trade in the North Country. Businesses throughout the mountains had banked on good skiing now to recoup those looses. Many ski slopes have no business at all. At least one of Maine's nine major ski areas may go bankrupt this year even with SBA loans, Pontbriand estimated.
Hardest hit are the ski areas that have heavy mortgages and no snowmaking equipment. Marlo Chiaravelotti bought Mr. Whittier, 20 miles south of Conway, in 1978. A medium-sized mountain, Whittier caters to day skiers from Boston. Last year Chiaravelotti invested $100,000 in new attractions for summer visitors: a monorail ride and a summer ski run. In the fall, he spent another $100,000 on a new ski lift, a snow-grooming catarpillar, promotion and slope maintenance.
"Not only have we lost what we've committed to the skiing but we're not going to make good on the summer investment," said Don McDavid, Whittiers general manager.
The mountain hasn't been open a single day this winter. Closure during Christmas week alone represented a loss of between 25 percent and 30 percent of its annual income. McDavitt said. Fifty workers are out of jobs. And Chiaravelotti's restaurant at the base of the mountain has only an occasional customer.
"Even if we got a foot of snow a day, there's no way we could recoup the money that's been lost," McDavitt said.
Annette Mason's family bought the Flanders Motor Inn beside Whittier 18 months ago. Every bed was empty last week. The bar and restaurant hosted three customers.
With SBA loans, "We could come through," Mason said. "We can't take anything out at the bank. They're asking 18 percent. God. That would kill you. Eight and a quarter would be just enough to pull us out of hot water."
A few larger resorts may break even this winter. Vermont's $109 million ski industry may not even need emergency loans, an aide to Governor Richard A. Snelling said. Seventeen of the state's 25 largest ski areas are making snow. Many of them cater to the vacation skier who is glad to leave New York or Washington, snow or no snow.
New Hampshire's Waterville Valley has slashed its staff of 300 by one-third. Business is off 30 percent, according to Robert Saltonstall, general manager. But Waterville has put 1,000 skiers or more on the mountain every day since Thanksgiving. The resort is offering vacationers unlimited ski lessons, 9 snow-covered slopes, posh lodgings and nightly entertainment.
"I thought the skiing was good," Rudy Carlson, a teacher in Washington, said after a day on Waterville's slopes. "But it is ultimately freaky to ski down a patch of snow and see everything else brown. I find it surreal."
"We're having a rough year. There's no question about it . . . but the year could end up respectably," Saltonstall said. "Morale around here is really pretty encouraging. People are having a good time."
North Conway's hard-selling Chamber of Commerce and agressive inn management kept cancellations to 25 percent during the Christmas holiday. Skiers who came were plied with tennis, racquetball, roller disco, indoor swimming, movies and parties. Last weekend, the Jack Frost clothing store cajoled tourists to stay in town for an outdoor tennis tournament. Next month a ski trade convention is expected to bring $1 million to the town. n
North Conway also is cushioned by heavy tourist trade during the rest of the year. The Volvo International Tennis Tournament held here in late July attracts 60,000 visitors. Thousands more came to hike the Presidentials, canoe the Saco River, camp in pine woods and swim in clear lakes.