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Michigan winter sports resorts cope with unusually warm, dry winter

A sign in Grand Rapids warns of "thin ice," despite warmer-than-normal temperatures that have prevented ice from forming on a pond at the John Ball Zoo.
Brett Dahlberg
Michigan Radio
A sign in Grand Rapids warns of "thin ice," despite warmer-than-normal temperatures that have prevented ice from forming on a pond at the John Ball Zoo.

Unusually warm weather and low snowfall is has hurt the winter snow sports industry in Michigan this year, along with other businesses reliant on snow.

The federal Small Business Administration is offering emergency loans to businesses in 42 Michigan counties that are covered by a drought designation because of snowfall totals far before normal. The loans are for up to $2 million and are interest-free for the first year. The interest is capped at 4% after that.

This winter (from December 2023 through February 2024) has been the warmest on record for both Michigan and the entire contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The higher temperatures are changing both cultural and economic realities in the state.

Some ski resorts have had to pivot to other events or close for the year earlier than usual. “Those downstate down closer to the Metro Detroit area and over on the western side of the state, many of them usually plan, figure that they've got until the middle of March but they're closing early,” said Mickey MacWilliams, president and executive director of the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association.

“Many of them have done things like move into other activities that people can do besides skiing,” she said. “You can go to a water park, do sleigh rides, fat tire bike riding, all sorts of different activities” she said.

Some other snow resorts have relied more on snowmakers, which use snow, water, and ice to produce snow. “What they've been doing over the years is investing in more and better snow making equipment,” McWilliams said. “The snow-making equipment today that ski areas have here in Michigan can make snow more efficiently, less expensively, and at higher temperatures than the snow-making equipment that was around here, say, 20 years ago.”

Still, businesses have been helped by the emergency loans from the Small Business Association. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and politicians from both major parties have pushed for the federal funding.

MacWilliams said she hopes all of the state’s ski resorts can become eligible for funding. “My hope is that that's not going to happen again next year, that things will go back to a little bit more normal winter temperatures here,” she said.

Not all of the state’s ski resorts are done for the season. MacWilliams said now is actually a good time to start skiing at the slopes that are still open. “For those that have never skied, this is the perfect time to try it because the snow is so forgiving when it's warm like this.”

A.J. Jones is a newsroom intern and graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Sources say he owns a dog named Taffy.
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