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When there's less white on the Green Mountain State

TESS VIGELAND: This week's big Nor'easter was the last thing an already-beleaguered agricultural industry needed.First, there was the California freeze back in January that devastated citrus and nut crops.And then that weird storm that hit the south a couple of weeks ago and took some of the fuzz off of the peach crop.Now, farmers in the wheat belt say this week's spring snowstorm could ruin that harvest.

On the upside, many New England ski resorts re-opened so die-hard fans could have one more run down the mountain.But in Vermont, it may have been too little too late.From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jane Lindholm explains.


JANE LINDHOLM: Ski season in Vermont can begin as early as October. But not this year.

Bob Fries owns the Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Northern Vermont.

BOB FRIES: Well, the first half of the year was not good. There was warm temperatures, made it difficult to make snow, and there wasn't a lot of natural snow. So, it was slim pickings.

Then, Valentines Day brought a storm that draped the naked mountains in a blanket of white powder. And the snow has continued to pile up in the second half of the season.

Great for adrenaline junkies. But not for those who rely on winter tourism to make a living. In January, some retailers were behind by as much as 80 percent. And that kind of deficit can be impossible to make up.

Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin is well aware of the impact a bad ski season can have on the state.

PETER SHUMLIN: For us, snow is the equivalent of the tech boom to California. I mean, it's not just skiers coming in, here buying tickets and jumping on mountains. They stay in bed and breakfasts and inns. They eat in restaurants — that drives the restaurant industry. They buy second homes — that drives the whole building industry. So it's hard to estimate the impact. It is huge.

In March, the state legislature passed an emergency aid package aimed at helping out the struggling winter industry. The bill did two things: First, it released money to advertise the fact that Vermont finally had snow. And second, it allowed towns to waive the penalty for battered retailers who couldn't pay their property taxes on time.

But Curtis Picard, Vice President at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says that didn't really help.

CURTIS PICARD: If you're a business, it's already . . . can't pay the, say, $10,000 property tax payment to begin with, the legislature coming in and waiving a 4, 5 or 6 percent penalty, it's kind of too little, too late for a lot of these folks.

Senate President Shumlin acknowledges that the bill was a stop-gap measure.He says this season was merely the sign of things to come.

SHUMLIN: Any reasonable scientist will tell you that we're going to rise anywhere between another two and three degrees in the next 30 years. That means that New Jersey's climate is moving to Vermont in the next decade. That has tremendous implications in our economy's ski, maple-sugar making, leaf-peeping and the list goes on and on. So we are — I at least am — looking at this with a major sense of panic.

But resort owners and business people don't like to talk about climate change.And with good reason: tourism brings $1.3 billion to the state annually.Start telling people that Vermont's getting warmer and who's gonna come to visit?

Bolton Valley Resort owner Bob Fries says this was just an off year, pure and simple.

FRIES: As long as I remember, people talk about, "Oh, when I was a kid the snowfalls were so big." I think you remember the big ones. The statistics I've seen prove to me, anyway, that the snowfall averages really haven't changed a whole lot.

But government and business alike agree that tax breaks are not a long-term economic fix. If the tourism industry in Vermont is to prosper, they say, it must diversify, diversify, diversify.

VERMONT TOURISM VOICES:"All season resorts.""Attract more people to Vermont year-round.""Four-seasons is something that resorts were looking at anyway and are looking at more and more."

To that end, Bolton Valley Resort just built a $2 million summer wedding facility.

A season like this one reminds everyone in Vermont that spreading out the economic risk — as well as the potential reward — is a savvy move no matter what the cause.

And hey, Senator Shumlin says grimly, there may soon be an even bigger tourist draw.

SHUMLIN: If the Greenland Icecap and the polar icecap melt fast enough, we might have seaside property here before long.

In Montpelier, Vermont, I'm Jane Lindholm for Marketplace.
Skiers enjoy late-season snow in Vermont. (Jane Lindholm)

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