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Waiting for the white stuff: lack of snow can be good for roads, bad for business

Holiday decorations sit on brown grass looking slightly less spirited; snowmobiles sit idle and lonely in dry sheds; and children's snow pants hang dry, unused and un-introduced to this year's unborn snowmen.

The area's "no-snow" event has some singing hallelujah and others praying to the snow gods.

The brown ground is pushing some budgets into the black, like the City of Detroit Lakes' Public Works Department.

"Last year I was $10,000 in the hole by this time," said Public Works Director Brad Green, "but because we haven't had to be out there plowing snow this year, I'm now sitting $10,000 in the black."

Green says the city's public works department got $262,300 dollars this year to keep the roads cleared and safe, and only had to spend a small fraction of that on sanding last month.

"It's allowed us to be able to work on some other things that normally wouldn't get done until spring," said Green, "like storm water basin cleaning and moving the volleyball court down in Peoples Park and getting that ready to seed."

And while there's nothing like a little spring work in December, Green does say all it really takes is one big snow event for that $10,000 surplus to disappear.

"It can go fast, that's for sure," said Green, "so we're still on guard for that."

Becker County is also counting its lucky stars, as a snowy 2010 winter and 2011 spring had also eaten up much of its snow-clearing budget.

"We were really high on our budget from all the salt and sand we had to use -- it was almost double from previous years," said Becker County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz. "So not having any snow now is really helping us get back on track for our budget ... I'm hoping it stays this way a little longer."

But what's good for the goose isn't always good for the gander.

Just like many local businesses rely on warm weather in the summer to bring people to the lakes, many also rely on snow for their recreational businesses.

"This is really a bummer," said Jim Richards, founder and owner of Maplelag Ski Resort and Conference Center near Callaway.

Richards says three high school ski teams from the Twin Cities area were supposed to be using his trails this weekend to prepare for the season, but with no snow, they cancelled their stay.

Now, Richards says those 250 customers will likely be looking closer to home, where there is snow right now.

"That's a huge financial hit for us because once it's gone, it's gone -- that's why December snow is so critical for us," said Richards, who adds that they are constantly checking the forecast and are more than ready to go once the snow does fly.

"We don't need much. Two to three inches and we're good to go," said Richards.

LeRoy Howard is also feeling this winter's no-snow sting, as his towing business is "stuck" without its usual winter clientele.

"Winter is only so long," said Howard, who says this time last year they had been extremely busy helping a number of semis and other drivers find their way out of ditches.

"And not that you ever wish that on anybody, but it's definitely a big part of our business," said Howard, who says he also ends up getting out-of-towners who come for the snowmobiling and snow sports.

"So it affects hotels -- everybody," said Howard.

Over at Detroit Lakes' L&M Fleet Farm, snow-related inventory isn't quite as fat as one might think, and Store Manager Jason Swangstue says they've got the big east coast blizzard in October to thank.

"When that happened, people freaked out a little bit, so they were coming in here then for snow blowers and all that," said Swangstue.

And even though Swangstue says the no-snow event has slowed sales a bit for the snow-related items, it ended up helping sales in deer hunting equipment.

"Having no snow makes it harder to track deer, so because nobody got any deer this year, they're all back in to buy equipment for muzzle loading," said Swangstue.

Over at Seaberg Power Sports in Detroit Lakes, Sales Manager Rich Leibelt says people from out of town have been calling for snow reports.

"And I just look out the window and have to tell them, 'there's nothin' here,'" said Leibelt, who says although his usual customers are "itching" to ride, it hasn't affected sales.

"It's been a lot better than I thought it would be," said Leibelt, who says bored customers make for a busy service department in preparation for the snow, "and we're Minnesota people -- we know that it's going to happen eventually, and when it does hit, it's going to hit big."