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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)


Tyler McKean checks the weather first thing each morning, and when the temperature rises, so does his stress level.

Warm weather means fewer aspiring skiers and snowboarders signing up for lessons in St. Paul parks, where McKean manages winter recreation. In parks across the metro, fewer people rent equipment and buy ski trail passes. The lack of snow and cold leads to a drop in participation at parks that costs cities and counties thousands of dollars.

And makes for a dreary season without winter sports.

"It's part of what makes winter in Minnesota enjoyable and tolerable," McKean said of skiing.

Some cities and counties are trying to counter nature by making their own snow. Others are seeking alternative ways to boost revenue through other winter recreation options - like fat-tire biking - in the face of climate change and abbreviated snow seasons.

"We're always thinking of plan B," said Beth Landahl, parks visitor services manager in Dakota County.

Meanwhile, determined skiers like St. Paul resident John Kendrick seek snow where they can find it, often crowding man-made loops in Bloomington, Maple Grove and Minneapolis. He uses different skis for poor conditions and treks farther to find snow.

To continue his hobby, "being flexible, being adaptable" is necessary, he said.

The past three years have been particularly short ski seasons, even for agencies like Three Rivers Park District that produce artificial snow.

The low snow seasons have been "pretty dismal," Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Director Jon Oyanagi said.

Ramsey County's ski trails were open 41 days on average over the past three years - compared to 101 days in the 2012 and 2013 seasons. And during the short time frame when the trails were officially open there were likely only a few good weeks to ski, Oyanagi said.

Revenue from ski and snowshoe rentals dropped from $11,308 in the 2013 season to $1,903 this past season, according to Ramsey County. In 2013, the county also netted $4,500 from adult and youth programs, like ski lessons. It has not been able to offer those programs the past two seasons.

In a snowy year like 2013, Dakota County makes $50,000 selling ski passes.

"That obviously decreases quite significantly when we don't have any snow," Landahl said, and the revenue dropped to about $20,000 this season.

Dakota County also had to cancel its "Trails by Candlelight" night ski event for the third year in a row. In the past, people had paid $10 each to prticipate in the popular event.

The south suburban park system added fat-tire biking and encouraged winter hiking when skiing and snowshoeing weren't possible. But the cycle of thawing and freezing this winter made conditions too icy even for hiking, Landahl said.

In Minneapolis, Loppet Foundation adventures director Anthony Taylor had to be creative to run 11 ski programs in elementary schools. The warm weather forced him to move outdoor activities into school gyms, where he has kids do yoga and other exercises to improve their balance. Instead of eight to 10 weeks of outdoor practice before the kids' first race, they got three or four.

"Historically, we groomed trails and playgrounds near the schools," he said, but "you need natural snow for that."

The Loppet Foundation, which took over winter recreation management in Minneapolis parks this season, has new snow-making equipment at Theodore Wirth Park. But they must wait until the temperature drops to 20 degrees Fahrenheit or below to start using it. This year, that was weeks later than anticipated, Loppet Foundation Executive Director John Munger said.

"You play the cards you're dealt every year," he said.

Golf vs. cross country skiing

In St. Paul, where all the cross-country ski trails are on golf courses, that's meant a short ski season. The city doesn't plan to add snow-making equipment, which would jeopardize its ability to start offering golf when the weather warms, McKean said.

But for Three Rivers Park District, other communities' quandaries have been a boon. The agency has earned, on average, $626,626 annually the past three years from cross-country ski rentals and fees. In 2012 and 2013, it earned an average $388,474.

"Our manufactured snow has really mitigated the ebb and flow," Associate Superintendent Tom McDowell said, even with shorter downhill and cross-country ski seasons the past few years.

Other park systems, including Dakota County, are now looking into snow-making. Ramsey County has been in talks with high school ski teams and a local ski club for a decade to try to add snow-making equipment at Battle Creek Regional Park, but it isn't cheap.

Ramsey County and other stakeholders would cover $2 million of the cost, Oyanagi said, but they are also hoping the Legislature will put $2 million toward the project in next year's bonding bill.

In the meantime, high school ski teams pack into Wirth Park on snowless days - a crowding Taylor said intimidates new skiers. And in St. Paul, McKean must continue to call schools and tell them the city's trails are not up to snuff for a ski meet.

He's gotten used to feeling like "that jerk at the city," McKean said. Over the past three years, more races have been canceled than held in St. Paul.

Jessie Van Berkel · 612-673-4649

Faiza Mahamud · 612-673-4203

Winter recreation is down at metro area parks since the last snowy winter in 2013.

87: Days of cross-country ski operations at Three Rivers Park District this season.

126: Days of cross-country ski operations at Three Rivers Park District in 2013.

618: Participants in St. Paul ski programs this season.

910: Participants in St. Paul ski programs in 2013.

$1,903: Ramsey County revenue from winter equipment rentals this season.

$11,308: Ramsey County revenue from winter equipment rentals in 2013.

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March 28, 2017


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