BY: Julie Abbass
Mother Nature has been toying with snowmobilers this winter, even on the Tug Hill Plateau where snow is usually a sure thing, testing the mettle of many north country businesses.
The morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, tables at the Circle K’s diner in Constableville were nearly filled with people in snow gear just off the trail, their snowmobiles lining the parking lot, while others were filling their gas tanks for more riding.
A foot of weekend snowfall translated into some well-groomed trails high on the Hill, sunny weather cold enough to sustain the snow and, because of the holiday, no need to rush to work after a week of unseasonable warmth.
The chatter around the room was a happy mix of trail adventure stories, information exchanges and discussions of ‘where-to-next.’
“I took the groomer out at 3:30 in the afternoon and got back at 1 a.m. It’s about 18 miles. There were water spots but the majority of the trails are beautiful and they groomed really nice,” said Southern Tug Hill Snow Riders snowmobile club board member Brian Bedell as he refilled his coffee.
The snow also generated some much-needed income for area businesses dependent on snowmobiler dollars.
Hard data on the actual economic impact of the snowmobiling industry on the north country does not exist. Sales tax information that could indicate an up-tick in tourism-related purchases during the snowmobile season in trail areas is considered “proprietary” and is not made public by the state.
The most recent estimate of the impact was a 2011 assessment performed by SUNY Potsdam’s Institute of Applied Research commissioned by the New York State Snowmobiling Association.
Based on a survey of about 5,900 snowmobilers, direct spending statewide by snowmobile owners was estimated to be about $434 million, with total spending at about $868 million.
Regionally, $165 million of direct spending was estimated to be in the Tug Hill Plateau Region and $245 million in the Adirondacks.
Snowmobiling direct spending includes the goods and services purchased like snowmobiles and trailers, fuel, lodging, food, seasonal homes, trail grooming machines, insurance, signage, registration fees and gear, among others.
Indirect spending encompasses the financial ripples from the direct spending relating to the sport including wages at snowmobiler haunts, the spending done with those wages, the materials and construction of new groomer barns, and other goods and services further down the supply chain.
The study did not provide any county-level data.
While no new state-wide study has been done for the past nine years, in 2018, Lewis County used the same software as the 2011 study to estimate its own economic benefit from the sport, according to County Manager Ryan Piche. From that exercise, the overall economic impact in Lewis County that year was estimated to be about $159 million which included $127 million in direct spending.
Additionally, 50% of the businesses that participated in a Lewis County Chamber of Commerce survey the same year indicated snowmobiling was the outdoor recreation activity that had the most significant economic impact, followed closely by ATVs.
For Deb Christy, president of the St. Lawrence Snowmobile Association, a good indicator of how important the sport is to the local economy came when an important bridge along their trail system was slated to be closed for two years.
Economic development agencies and the county helped the association cover the $135,000 needed to replace the bridge. It was re-opened within three months, she said.
One of the biggest challenges to determine the overall impact of snowmobiling on many levels is quantifying exactly how many riders use the trails every season.
Although there are infrared counters on some trails, it doesn’t account for riders passing by multiple times. Sledders register each snowmobile they will use on the trails but there is no way to track who actually rides on trails in any given area and no trail permits are required.
Based on the most recent figures available, the 2018-2019 state Parks Snowmobile Mileage Tables, of the 10,500 miles of trail throughout the state about 1,190 miles run through the tri-county area – about 140 miles in Jefferson, about 500 miles in Lewis and just over 550 miles in St. Lawrence.
Ironically, trails only exist because of volunteers despite the millions of dollars of income generated in the state by snowmobiling,
Other than seasonal roads, landowners volunteer their property to allow trails without compensation and in the north country, members of the 20 snowmobile clubs volunteer their time to keep trails clear of debris, ensure culverts and bridges are safe and passable and to groom the trails constantly throughout the season.
While the clubs do receive reimbursement for the miles of trail groomed and the time it takes by the state, according to Lewis County Recreation, Forestry and Parks Department Director Jackie Mahoney, the actual amount of grooming that happens over a winter on Tug Hill is usually double the limit of what can be reimbursed.
Currently, Mrs. Mahoney said, those reimbursements are also well behind schedule.
Christopher Skipper, president of the Turin Ridge Riders which is one of the largest clubs in the state with over 1,400 members, said the goal of grooming the trails is to “completely process the snow” so that the snow and ice are “homogenized” and mixed for smoother riding.
The multiple blades of the large grooming attachment pulled by tractors that run on massive tracks that do better on snow than wheels with even the best treads, cut up and blend whatever it passes over. Without a solid base of snow, that would include the land beneath it.
So the key element to a successful sledding season is the most uncontrollable and increasingly unpredictable: the weather.
As climate change takes its toll, the north country guarantee of a long, cold and snowy winter no longer exists and it’s taking its toll on businesses this year.
“We were doing well with sales up to Christmas, when we lost our snow,” said Steve Gamble, fourth-generation operator of Gambles outdoor equipment distributor in Carthage, avid snowmobiler and Missing Link Snowmobile Club member, “It was our second-best pre-season sales.”
He said in-season customers are usually driven by snow, not just in sled sales but also in maintenance and repairs.
“If they’re not using their sleds they’re not breaking them,” Mr. Gamble said.
He also noted that the lack of snow, and new sled sales, also triggers a negative impact on banks because most new sleds are financed.
In their second winter as owners and operators of The Thirsty Moose in Childwold, Sharlene and James Gaudet, originally from Oswego, said they had considered building a new business but when they realized the Moose was for sale, with its long history and well-established place in the snowmobiling community, they seized the opportunity.
“Snowmobiling is our primary source of income,” said Mrs. Gaudet, “It is a bit scary but we decided to take the risk.”
She said that they have already learned “you have to plan for Mother Nature” which means saving money during good seasons and not assuming the snow will be plentiful. Support from other winter sport sectors like the ice fishing derby, also helps to keep things going when there isn’t much sledding.
They are now working to diversity their business model and stepp-upr marketing while keeping the place’s nostalgic feel in place.
Businesses that have a strong local following, like the Towpath Restaurant and Lodge in Turin, can be less vulnerable to the unpredictability of the weather during snow season. Most businesses report the majority of their snowmobiling customers come from out of the area including other states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and, internationally, Canada.
“The lack of snow certainly impacts lodging,” said Jenn Myers, co-owner of the Towpath, but even when there are cancellations due to weather predictions, calls start pouring in at the hint of snow, “It’s important to stay positive.”
For Tim Sadowski, owner of the West Wind Motel & Townhouses in Turin, the lodging is his most stable income source because the spaces are usually rented for the entire season.
He said the people who use his snow machine rental service usually “aren’t hard core sledders” but still want to ride. They usually wait for a few days after a good snowfall to head to the trails while “snowmobiling addicts” like himself, usually have their own sleds, watch web snow cams and come up the minute there’s snow.
“This past Saturday I had every sled reserved to go out, but I called everybody on Friday to let them know it wouldn’t be good until Saturday afternoon. Half came anyway and half cancelled.”
Mr. Christopher noted a lack of snow around the state is better for Tug Hill businesses because they usually have snow no matter what, at least higher up on the Hill.
According to one area operator, the more they all cooperate, the more healthy businesses there will be which will have a positive impact on the economy.
“There’s a reason why shopping malls work. Don’t try to knock out the competition. Malls work because they offer selection and competition. The more choices people have, even in the trail system in general, the better it is for the area,” Mr. Sadowski said.
What hasn’t been calculated into impact on local economies or the communities that host snowmobile trails is the sledders that come to the region to ride over the years but eventually decide to stay and invest in a business.
In many cases, like with the Gaudets and the Myers, that has meant new owners ready to buy well-established businesses and continue them with their own flourish.
It also has a positive impact on the slowly decreasing population in the area and the need to attract a younger demographic of people as locals age.
Mr. Skipper, originally from Pennsylvania, is now raising his young family on Tug Hill and Mr. Sadowski said he has the “time and flexibility to get where [he] wants to be” with his Turin-based venture because he still has other business in his native Long Island.
With a little help from Mother Nature, the snow will keep falling, the snowmobiles will keep riding and the tight-knit recreation business community in the north country will keep driving the winter economy.