ELLICOTTVILLE – Christmas is less than three weeks away, yet most of the area’s shovels are collecting more dust than snow.
A second straight mild winter might be fine for many.
But for those in Ski Country, the warming weather is part of a disturbing trend – both here and across the nation.
Whether we’re seeing the effects of global warming – or just a two-year fluke – the winter tourism industry suffers when snow doesn’t fall.
New research points to $12.2 billion in winter tourism dollars that are in jeopardy because of warming climates.
Nowhere is that more evident than Ellicottville, where this normally bustling ski village is anxious for its first real snowstorm to sustain its popular ski slopes.
The slopes were set to open two weeks ago, but not one skier has gone on a single run. Snowfall so far this season? 7 inches.
“We’re hoping it starts to change,” Mayor Charles R. Coolidge said of the weather. “We’ll pile [winter tourists] in here. They come by the busloads.”
Coolidge recalled the scene two years ago when bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched from Route 219 to the heart of the village. Snowfall that season? 261 inches.
It’s not an unusual sight to see this once-sleepy outpost chock-full with those who come to ski, shop and party.
Developers have poured millions of dollars into hotels, chalets and ski lodges in recent years to keep up with the demand.
But when the snow doesn’t come – and forecasters said the next two weeks look sparse – the whole town takes a hit.
“It’s slow – we should be rocking out by now, but we’re not,” said Christina Arena, who manages Katy’s Cafe, a coffee shop on the main business strip.
Arena stood post last week behind an empty lunch counter, where she said dozens of patrons usually gather.
“A lot of customers and locals that come in, they’re pretty upset about it,” she said.
No one wants the snow more than the village’s two ski resorts, which attract skiers from Western New York, Southern Ontario, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Roughly half a million people shuffle through the gates of the Holiday Valley resort each year when the snow is steady.
Those guests have helped pay for nearly $30 million in upgrades to the resort over the past five years – including this year’s $13 million ski lodge.
The sprawling complex boasts 58 slopes and trails, more than 500 upscale rooms and employs more than 1,000 people at peak season.
New snowmaking equipment blared there last week, pumping millions of ice crystals onto green patches of lawn.
Ski officials hoped the fake snow would take hold, but a day later, it washed away in the rain.
“We sort of know we can’t count on Mother Nature,” said Jane Eshbaugh, who markets the resort. “She’s got her own plan.”
The ski resorts have upgraded their snowmaking apparatus in an attempt to fight the warming temperatures.
They’ve also begun to diversify by adding conferences, weddings and other attractions not tied to snowfall.
Holiday Valley, for instance, now touts the Sky High Adventure Park – an obstacle course with zip lines, rope bridges and a roller coaster.
Travelers can also tee up on the resort’s upgraded golf course or hike through its nature trails.
“Any business, you should not put all your eggs in one basket,” Eshbaugh said.
The village has followed suit. Boutique stores now outnumber ski shops by 2 to 1, and events like the popular Oktoberfest beer blast have developed their own following.
But it’s clear the snow – and the ski traffic – have been the main accelerant in recent development and rising property values.
That’s why the national ski industry is taking a major role in the push to address climate change.
National groups are urging lawmakers to address global warming on economic, not ideological, grounds.
More than $1 billion in ski revenue and 27,000 winter jobs were lost over the last decade due to warming temperatures, according to a new study by University of New Hampshire researchers.
Ski resorts in New York State lose about 10 percent of their customers during a mild winter, the study says.
“This spells significant economic uncertainty for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall,” said report author Elizabeth Burakowski.
Ski resorts here and across the country have been upgrading to new energy-efficient snowmaking machines.
And major ski sponsors like Burton and Mountain Dew are also joining the effort to push for climate change legislation.
Here in Ski Country, not everyone is willing to blame global warming for the recent mild winters. The mayor said he doesn’t believe in the concept. Others were quick to point to a snowy winter just two years ago.
And over the last decade, snowfall in the ski region has jumped from historic lows to highs of more than 250 inches, and back down again.
But there’s a recognition here that, while Buffalo basks in its springlike weather, this area one hour south absolutely lives for the snow – and it doesn’t want to see it go away anytime soon.
“As long as we keep developing new ways to make snow, we’ll be fine,” said Miguel Azcarate, operator of Mud, Sweat ’n’ Gears ski shop. “But something is for sure: Even here, without snowmaking, we’d be in trouble.”
Added Arena, the restaurant manager: “We’re all just kind of waiting.”