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Skiiers lament, golfers love warm winter

March 09, 1998|By DON AINES

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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MERCERSBURG, Pa. - From a distance, white ribbons wander down the mountain, but on closer inspection, the snow on the slopes of the Whitetail Ski Resort is giving way to patches of green.

This time of year the lifts should still be running and the slopes dotted with skiers and snowboarders winding down the mountain. On a good day, hundreds of employees would be serving a few thousand skiers.

Instead, the resort in Montgomery Township and others in the area are experiencing the vagaries of Mother Nature in a seasonal business. It just hasn't been cold enough to make snow.

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"Manmade snow can stand up to rain pretty well, but it can't stand up to 50 degrees," Whitetail Communications Manager Rachel Nichols said last week. She said this was the first season Whitetail was unable to open all 17 slopes.

The slopes have been closed since March 2, she said. An operator at Ski Liberty near Fairfield, Pa., said the slopes there also closed on that date.

The Edelweiss snow tubing park at Coolfont Resort in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., has also been closed in recent days, according to an operator. The $500,000 park opened on Jan. 5, although temperatures reached the 60s that day.

Nichols said Whitetail normally expects a 100-day season running through March, but this season, slopes had been open just 67 days.

A January warm spell closed the slopes for a few days, but there have also been periods of good skiing conditions, Nichols said.

She said Whitetail doesn't release revenue figures, but they are down 62 percent from projected figures for the season.

Big swingIn a good season, such as 1995-96, Nichols said Whitetail gets about 225,000 visitors, with the number of employees swelling from about 40 permanent workers to 850 full- and part-timers.

"It turns into a little city," she said.

Seasonal work includes ski lift operators, instructors, ski patrols, ticketing and reservations, kitchen and food service and equipment rental, Nichols said.

Nichols said the highest number of employees this season was about 700.

While winter has been unkind to skiers, the mild weather has been a boon for golfers.

"There's been a few days we had to close, but most of the time we've been open," said Barb Handshaw, a pro shop attendant at Penn National Golf Club near Fayetteville, Pa.

Snow on Tuesday closed the course, but it reopened Friday, Handshaw said. On a particularly nice weekend in late February, she said golfers played more than 100 rounds.

"This winter it seemed like the season never ended," said Bill Hoffman, assistant golf pro at Black Rock Golf Course near Hagerstown. He said the course was closed for only eight or nine days all winter due to weather.

On Feb. 26, Hoffman said golfers played about 160 rounds. "That's pretty good considering you don't have much daylight to work with," he said.

"Cold is not our biggest enemy in the winter, wind is," Hoffman said. He said even when temperatures dip into the 30s, business can be good as long as the windchill factor isn't too great.

"We've mowed this winter, which we've never done in the past," Hoffman said. The greens were trimmed at least twice and the fairways had to be cut last week, he said.

Nichols said Whitetail is looking forward to having its own golf course. The resort will break ground this summer on the course, which should be ready for play in the spring of 2000.

"The idea was always for Whitetail to be a four-season resort," Nichols said. Along with the course, the $10 million project includes a conference center and golf academy.

During the rest of the year, the resort is also open for mountain biking, camping, fly-fishing and other activities.

Nichols, however, hasn't given up on winter yet. She said there's a lot of pent-up desire among skiers and snowboarders waiting for a cold spell to reopen the slopes.

"I'm a cockeyed optimist," she said.

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