By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Wisconsin winters, for many, are a matter of culture, a matter of pride.
“If I don’t have four seasons, I’m not happy,” said Jim Kucan, 58, of Waukesha.
But Kucan said he knows winter is a matter of economics as well.
This year, neither job is bringing in much money.
He’s temporarily laid off from the motorcycle shop until demand increases, and his servicing business has been “terrible,” except for occasional customers bringing in their snowmobiles for maintenance, he said.
“If there’s no snow, people don’t go out and play,” Kucan said. “Same thing with ice fishing.”
Wisconsin relies heavily on snow — a fact easy to forget with people running outside comfortably in December or taking the kids to the playground in January.
Retailers sell snowblowers and snowmobiles. Mechanics service the engines that make them go. Restaurant and bar owners await the hungry and thirsty snowmobiling, sledding, skiing and ice-fishing masses. But so far this year has been a bust.
Milwaukee’s 1.7 inches of snow to date ranks as the third least-snowy July 1-to-Jan. 9 period on record, according to the National Weather Service in Milwaukee.
About 75 percent of the state has no snow on the ground, according to the National Weather Service maps, with ground cover topping out at about 6 inches in far north central Wisconsin.
Tourism is Wisconsin’s third largest industry, behind manufacturing and agriculture.
Winter tourism was a $2.1 billion industry in 2010, including the December through February period, according to data gathered by survey research company Davidson-Peterson Associates Inc. for the state Department of Tourism.
“I would be really surprised, if we have a snowless winter,” said Lisa Marshall, the agency’s communications director.
A cold front is headed for Wisconsin, dropping high temperatures into the upper 20s for Thursday and bringing expected snow showers for much of Wisconsin starting Wednesday evening.
Ice fishing aficionados are on the lakes as far south as Madison, although thin layers of ice have made fishing difficult, if not dangerous.
And, Marshall said, Wisconsin’s tourism industry has learned to adapt to the vagaries of winter in Wisconsin. For example, the state Department of Natural Resources’ annual candlelight cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking event in Blue Mound State Park switched to a hike last Saturday because of no snow, she said.
The tourism department has a new ad out encouraging Wisconsinites to get out and play.
This weekend Jodie Carrico and her family are heading to Michigan, where she said they expect to travel 250 to 300 miles on their snowmobiles before Monday.
Avid snowmobilers, the Carricos have missed sledding around Wisconsin “very much.”
“You get to see things in Wisconsin and the Northwoods that not everyone gets to see off the highway,” she said.
Although the Carricos live in northeastern Wisconsin, they can’t find enough snow nearby for a good snowmobiling trek, so they plan to try Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they’ll sled, eat, gas up and lodge, to the delight of Michigan’s coffers, but to the detriment of Wisconsin’s.
“In recent years, it’s just been less and less snow (near home), which kind of hurts us because then we have to (travel) with the trailer and the truck to find it,” Carrico said.
The warmer weather does have a financial benefit for state taxpayers.
The natural gas bill for the state’s three General Executive Facility administrative buildings here was just below $76,000 last month, a 46 percent drop from December 2010’s $140,000 bill, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, or DOA.
Of that, 31 percent was saved because of lower consumption, DOA spokesman Tim Lundquist said.
Still, for those anxiously awaiting a wintry winter, the clock is ticking.
The snowmobiling season in southern Wisconsin only lasts about two months anyway in a normal year, Kucan said, from late December through February.
“I think we’re going to have a slow, sad winter,” he said.