When it snows in December and the ski lifts are hopping, the town of Beech Mountain can rake in as much as 40 percent of its annual occupancy tax in the last month of the year.
But this year’s record warm weather has closed down the slopes. As of Tuesday, all six of the ski resorts listed on the N.C. Ski Areas Association’s website were awaiting colder weather so they could make snow again, possibly this weekend, too late to cash in on Christmas break.
Beech Mountain won’t lose 40 percent of its revenue, as there are other attractions at the resorts and elsewhere, said Kate Gavenus, the town’s director of tourism and economic development. But it’s still a hit.
“The holidays have traditionally been our biggest time of the year,” Gavenus said.
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Both Beech Mountain and its neighbor, Sugar Mountain, which recently made a $5 million investment in its lifts, are getting creative to keep seasonal visitors coming. They plan to get their snow blowers roaring if temperatures plunge Thursday, as predicted. Meanwhile, there are breweries to visit, nearby Grandfather Mountain to marvel at, and New Year’s Eve to celebrate.
“When you’re in this industry, you kind of roll with the weather, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Talia L. Freeman, director of marketing at Beech Mountain. “We have quite a lot of people here even though it’s quite warm.”
This month is on track to be the warmest December on record in Asheville, with an average temperature of 50.7, through Wednesday, slightly higher than 1889’s figure of 50.3 degrees. The average December temperature for Asheville is 39.4 degrees, said John Tomko, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Greer, S.C.
“We’ve got colder air coming in, but there doesn’t appear to be any cold precipitation with it,” Tomko said. “They can make snow if it’s cold enough.”
Temperatures are supposed to dip to near freezing on New Year’s Eve, but a variety of factors can affect whether snow machines can create the amount and quality of snow to make skiing worthwhile.
Weather melts jobs
The lack of snow – or even temperatures low enough to support manufactured snow – could mean hundreds of seasonal workers will face a tough winter.
“Within the whole town, the restaurants, lodging, resorts and the Beech Mountain club, they employ about 700 people; right now about 400 of them are actually working,” Gavenus said. “We are bounded by some very distressed counties, and these are people that could really use the seasonal income.”
Sugar Mountain employs about 500 people at peak season, said marketing director Kim Jochl, but the resort isn’t staffed at that level now. The employees on hand are helping visitors with an oddball mix of attractions: Boating on kayaks that somehow never got put up for the winter, or ice skating on the facility’s new outdoor rink.
“We’ve had ice skating since the 15th; that’s our most consistent attraction,” Jochl said.
Visitors can also take rides on the new Summit Express, a six-seat, detachable, high-speed chairlift made by an Austrian-based company. It’s nearly a mile to the top of Sugar Mountain, and the company is betting people will pay to take the five-minute ride for the gorgeous panoramic view, skiing or no skiing.
‘We will go’
Back in Raleigh, folks like Dave Cerone at the Alpine Ski Center on Glenwood Avenue also keep an eye on the forecast. Whether the North Carolina mountain resorts open can determine what kind of gear people want, whether they might seek a more distant skiing area, or whether they will ski at all this winter.
“Right now, because of the weather situation, North Carolina is having a hard time,” Cerone said. “I’m seeing people go out west, to Utah, Colorado.”
Fulton Beasley, shop and office manager at Action Ski in Cameron Village, works with owner Gary Brown to book and arrange tours, including trips for YMCA or church groups of 25 to 75 people. Because the company books the treks in late spring, there’s no telling how the weather will break for skiing, Beasley said.
“We have a policy: If the mountain is open, then we will go,” he said.