A bright, flashing yellow sign warns motorists driving on Highway 28 around Lake Tahoe to be aware of icy conditions.
Not likely for most of this winter — and small businesses are scrambling to avoid going into a skid themselves.
For the Central Sierra region, the snow water equivalent — the amount of water produced if all the snow melted — for late January was just 14 percent of the 50-year average, the California Department of Water Resources reports. Before the storm that arrived late last week, the most recent real snowfall outside of a one-inch dusting in January was one to four inches that fell on Dec. 19.
Many of the small businesses, eateries and ski rental shops around the lake that depend on revenue from skiers and snowboarders flocking to the lake are feeling the drought with empty cash registers and near-vacant stores. Some shifted their focus to springtime activities or are buoyed by a strong local following that’s keeping revenue flowing.
Businesses that rent skis and snowboards clearly are among the hardest hit. Shoreline Adventure Center on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe displays a sign in its front window telling patrons to call store employees if they need help. “We can be here in five minutes,” the sign says. The shops’ parking lot was empty of cars on a recent sunny Sunday.
Businesses around the gondola operations at Heavenly Village fare slightly better than those outside that large visitor hub. Managers at Up Shirt Creek say business has been soft, but there’s been no cutbacks in hours for employees.
A few storefronts away at Powderhouse Boot and Demo Center, master boot fitter and store manager Bobby Trask mans a nearly empty store just a stone’s throw from the Heavenly gondola. During a normal winter, the store would be full of patrons looking to demo high-end skis and boots.
Its location has helped with boot and ski sales and demo packages, Trask says, but total volume at Powderhouse for the year is down significantly from years past. The shop has scaled back on employee hours in response to reduced customer traffic.
“Most times in the middle of winter, when we have a ton of snow, it is cranking in here,” Trask says. “Our store, we really get a lot of the destination customers, people coming up from the Bay (Area), and not a lot of people are coming here because of the lack of snow.”
Other small businesses have given up on winter and moved into spring/summer mode.
Borges Sleigh and Carriage Rides, the venerable business across the street from the Montbleu Resort Casino, is closed. Borges sleigh operators instead have been giving visitors to the lake carriage rides along the California side of South Lake Tahoe.
Owner Dwight Borges carries on the family business started by his father in 1967. He says Borges Sleigh and Carriage Rides typically has carriages running on good weather days even during snowy winters so despite not running the sleighs business has been stable.
“There still are quite a few people coming up to Lake Tahoe; it is still a destination for tourists, and offering a fun activity, whether it’s on snow or not, is what they are looing for,” Borges says. “If we weren’t doing carriage rides, we would be doing something else in order to survive,” he adds. “One way or another we would adapt. You do what you have to in order to make things work.”
In Incline Village, businesses catering to locals are treading water. T’s Mesquite Rotisserie, a North Shore institution, still sells out of its mouth-watering chicken on busy weekend days.
Alyssa Aninos, store manager at Dress the Part(y) in Incline Village, says the lack of snow hasn’t hurt business as much as it’s hit the ski resorts or sporting goods shops, but business still is down from last year. The 4,000-square-foot store sells costumes, makeup and party goods.
“We are lucky that we have our locals. I feel fortunate that we cater to locals versus someone who might cater to the tourism industry,” Aninos says.
Kyle Davis, owner of the The Crest Café and Catering, says business is off, but not terribly so, mainly because of dedicated local clientele that has kept the doors open the past eight years.
Winters normally are busier than summers, Davis adds, because The Crest is open later to accommodate skiers coming off the slopes at Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley. Despite a poor snow season for 2012-2013, The Crest had its best year on record, Davis adds. Much of that spike in revenue could be attributed to huge snowfall totals in December of 2012 that set resorts up with a good base of snow for the season.
“It’s all about the holidays,” he says. “If we can get enough snow to get people excited to come up for the holidays we all do pretty good.
“This year, we are OK. It hasn’t really been terrible, surprisingly enough. I have friends that are in business here, and some are 80 percent down — that is make or break — but I don’t know if the restaurant business is little different. People still need to eat and are looking for other things to do when the snow is not that great.”
On the flip side, business is booming at Sierra Mountain Sports tubing hill and snowmobile rental facility at Lake Parkway. Last year, Sierra Mountain Sports invested in utilities to power seven snowmaking guns and purchased a snowcat with a tiller blade to create a tubing hill. Business this year has been “crazy,” says Manager Donnie Pereira. On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, the hill was full of tubers young and old enjoying the artificial snow.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Pereira says. “We have the only snow play place in South Lake Tahoe. The only people in operation are those who are making snow. People are driving around looking for places to play, but they end up coming back to us.”
Sierra Mountain Sports rents between 100 and 120 tubes per day. Manager Bill Higginbotham says the poor snow conditions couldn’t have been better for the fledgling operation.