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Warmer winter hits Alaska businesses — for better and for worse

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 15, 2016

January is generally a slow time for business at Tudor Auto & Truck Repair in Anchorage, as people strapped for cash try to save money after the holidays. But thanks to a mild winter in Southcentral Alaska, the shop is even less busy this season than in years past.

Manager Joe Cyr said that the shop has seen 10 percent fewer cars this year compared to the same time last year -- about 11 fewer vehicles. There just aren't as many broken timing belts, failures to start or other common repairs that accompany colder conditions.

"The warmer weather has definitely slowed business," Cyr said. "When there's colder weather, usually the cars that aren't very well maintained can't take it."

Tudor Auto isn't the only business to feel the impact of one of the warmest winters in Alaska in recent years. Businesses from Anchorage to Fairbanks are feeling the effects of the weather on the bottom line -- for better and for worse.

Shops that rely on cold weather and snow are taking a hit, while some are thriving thanks to icy roads and mild temperatures.

Wilderness Way outdoor shop in Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula has watched sales of snowshoes and skis drop the past two years, but ice cleat sales are up. Matanuska Towing and Recovery in Palmer has had to rescue fewer cars from snowy ditches, and not as many people have needed jump-starts for dead batteries.

"The last several years have been pretty mild and we've noticed big changes," said Darin Minkler, manager at the towing company. "We still stay busy with cars that are just breaking, so ... it's not changing our outlook."

Skinny Raven Sports in Anchorage is seeing more customers on the hunt for running shoes. At Speedway Cycles, also in Anchorage, sales of fat-tire bikes have taken off in recent years.

Roads and trails slicked with ice have helped move more studded bicycle tires for fat bikes at Speedway, too. Those can run between $430 and $480 for a pair, Jameson said.

This winter has been the third unseasonably warm one in a row for Alaska overall, said Rick Thoman, climate sciences and services manager in Alaska for the National Weather Service.

In Anchorage, the average high temperature from Oct. 1 through Jan. 15 was 34 degrees. Compare that to an average high of 36 degrees in Anchorage during this same stretch of time last year.

What's more, snow has been scarce in Anchorage this winter, with just 22.9 inches during that same time. Last season set record lows for snow in Anchorage, with just 13.5 inches through mid-January.

In Fairbanks, the snowfall has totaled 30.3 inches between Oct. 1 and Jan. 15, compared with 24.7 inches the previous winter (though 2015 also saw the second snowiest September on record for the area, Thoman said). The average high temperature for Fairbanks this winter was 20 degrees, compared to 21 degrees last year.

Cross-country skiers in much of Southcentral are having a hard time finding places with enough snow to enjoy their sport.

At Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage, manager Marcy Baker said sales are down, even compared with a rough season last year. If things continue this way, she said, the shop will likely just order less nordic skiing gear for next year.

"Next year, if it's a gangbuster year, we'll be scrambling for merchandise because there'll be a thirst for it, instead of choking on bills we owe," she said.

This year, a strong El Niño is responsible for much of the higher temperatures, Thoman said.

Some entrepreneurs chalk the changes this season up to not just the weather, but the shakiness of Alaska's economy. The state is bracing for a downturn thanks to low oil prices and production, as well as a $3.5 billion budget deficit. BP, for example, will cut 13 percent of its Alaska workforce.

Lori Price, a marketing and sales specialist at Alaska Power Sports in Anchorage, said the store sold a lot of snowmachines through the holidays, but now things are slowing down.

"I definitely notice the economy is starting to hit," she said. "You can tell that people are becoming a lot more money-conscious, that's for sure. I would say a lot of the power sports dealerships are seeing the effects of the economy, too."

She's also noticed people buying less cold-weather apparel and gear.

For some businesses, work is not dramatically up or down but rather has pivoted. That's even true for businesses farther north in Alaska.

Bigfoot Pumping and Thawing, a drain cleaning and septic system business in North Pole, isn't doing much thawing this winter because there are fewer frozen sewer and water lines than usual for this time of the year.

"It's just not cold," said co-owner Dahna Krause. "We're just doing different kinds of work. We'll get through it."

Instead of thawing, she said, Bigfoot is doing more septic system pumping.

Most of the businesses that have seen a dip are just trying to make the best of the circumstances.

Cyr, at Tudor Auto, said that times of slow business are good opportunities for technicians to take vacations and to do upkeep and building maintenance.

"When we know we're going to have a slow front, this is the perfect time for things like that," he said. "As far as running any ads or specials, we'll wait until busy season."