MICHAEL W. AUBE

Winter weather and economic development

Posted Jan. 12, 2012, at 7:26 p.m.

Liveability.com, a national website highlighting more than 500 of the best places to live in America, has named Greater Bangor as one of its Top 10 Winter Cities. The criteria? Plenty of “cold weather dependent things to do and see, these best places to live are among the coolest of the cool cities.”

The website describes the Bangor area like this: “Surrounded by lakes and forests, mountains and nearby ocean coastline, Bangor, ME, is home to some of New England’s most beautiful natural attractions. During winter, an average of 60 inches of snowfall only adds to the splendor.”

Any recognition of what those of us who call the Bangor region home already know is appreciated and welcome. However, because of a relative lack of snow, our cure for cabin fever this winter includes fewer outdoor options and more indoor choices that surge during the winter season — such as the theater, symphony and sporting events at the universities or year-round options such as shopping and visiting the local library. Our cultural events and facilities will certainly welcome the additional guests. But, while there may be a lack of snow, there has not been a complete lack of cold. We’re still paying to heat our homes and recently we’ve been paying more.

This past week the average price for home heating oil in Maine has jumped 11 cents, after holding steady or dropping over the last month.

According to The Associated Press, Ken Fletcher, director of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, said last Monday that it’s unclear exactly why prices appear to be following recent escalations in crude oil prices and have jumped across the nation. A weekly survey shows an average price of $3.68 per gallon. Around the state, prices ranged from a low of $3.45 in southwestern Maine to a high of $4.05 in the central part of the state.

The rising cost of heating oil has a tremendous impact on a household budget resulting in reduced disposable income which normally would be spent on items that would stimulate the local and regional economy.

Which brings us back to snow! Maine‘s winter economy depends on snow and cold. The economic impact, particularly to Maine’s rural economy, is dependent on skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and ice fishing. Just travel throughout rural Maine and ask owners of motels, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores who are facing the increased costs of heating oil and the loss of revenue because of a lack of snow and cold.

If we have to pay exorbitant prices for heating oil, we also might have gain from the influx of visitors to our slopes, trails and lakes.

According to studies done by Stephen Reiling of the Department of Resource Economics and Policy at the University of Maine, snowmobiling in 1996 accounted for more than $150 million in direct expenditures and more than $225 million in direct and indirect impacts in Maine. And, according to the Maine Snowmobile Association, the rate of registration of vehicles by visitors increased more than 71 percent in two years. Today, according to the Maine Snowmobile Association, snowmobilers bring in an estimated $350 million in a “good” season.

In 2011, Maine’s ski industry generated about $300 million, according to estimates from Greg Sweetzer, executive director of Ski Maine. Estimates from industry leaders indicate that the economic contribution of Maine’s skiing and snowmobile industries result in an impact of more than half a billion dollars between the two sports.

Last year, according to news stories, Andy Shepard, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Winter Sports Center, estimated the exposure of the Biathlon World Cup held in February at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and the 10th Mountain Center in Fort Kent have the potential to bring $10 million to the northern Maine economy.

And although my good friend Richard and I often talk about seeking out the largest fish from one of our region’s frozen lakes or ponds during a tournament, we are all too often unable to find space for the ice shack. Ice fishing is serious — and popular — business in Maine and also contributes to the local economy. Today, more than 3,000 people are participating on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries Facebook pages. A “good” winter is good business in Maine.

So, although we have been avoiding shoveling, plowing and cleaning off the snow from our roofs and porches, the lack of snow this winter will have an impact on jobs and the bottom line for many Maine businesses. Snow is being made and great skiing can be had, but there is nothing like a good snow storm for winter sports and Maine economy.

The good news is that I’m writing this as a snowstorm prediction looms. Richard, get your auger and pole ready. I think cold and snow are on the way.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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