Low snowpack is hurting economy in communities near Mount Baker

The lack of snow at the Mt. Baker Ski Area this season is a bummer for skiers and snowboarders, but it’s also been a big blow to the economy of the nearby communities.

The latest casualty is Milano’s, a restaurant in Glacier. Owner Dave Reera announced on the restaurant’s Facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 18, that it had ceased operations.

The restaurant, known for its pasta and seafood at 9990 Mount Baker Highway, was a popular spot for skiers and hikers coming down from the mountain. In the post, Reera said the lousy snow season was a factor in the closure.

“We knew from the get go that if winter was truly horrible that the business wouldn’t survive. A gamble on the weather that didn’t turn out well,” said the Facebook post. Messages left for Reera seeking further comment were not immediately returned.

The closure punctuates what’s been a quiet season in the foothill communities like Glacier and Maple Falls. It’s also created some silver linings as the communities band together to help each other out during this slow period, said Rebecca Andersen, who owns the Wake ‘n Bakery with her husband, Court, just behind the Milano’s building. That includes seeing more of the local community in her bakery in recent weeks.

“I’m just so grateful that people have made an extra effort to support us,” Andersen said. “It really does matter.”

This year’s ski season has had trouble getting on track at the Mt. Baker Ski Area. It didn’t officially open until Saturday, Dec. 20, and organizers of the 30th annual Legendary Banked Slalom were forced to move the event from February to March 19-22 because of the lack of snow. As of Thursday, Feb. 19, the ski area was offering limited operations with a 22-inch base at Heather Meadows, according to its snow report.

The snow report does offer a glimmer of hope for skiers and snowboarders, noting that a few previous seasons that started off slow resulted in large snow totals in March.

Despite the lack of snow, some people are making do with the reservations they made at the various cabins and condominiums in the area. It’s been a bit busier at the Mount Baker Foothills Chamber of Commerce visitor center in Maple Falls as people look for other things to do, said Rebecca Boonstra, who is a coordinator at the center. More people want to do some hiking, particularly in the foothill areas and are inquiring about the best available trails, she said.

While having fewer skiers and snowboarders impacts the local economy, Boonstra pointed out the lack of snow also hurts local residents. Many work at the ski area, relying on that income. If the local residents are dealing with reduced hours, they have less money to spend in the community. That made the closing of Milano’s particularly discouraging, because with its upscale menu it was a great place for visitors and locals, whether they were wearing dressy or casual clothes, she said.

Andersen agreed, adding that it’s not good for the community to have any of the businesses closed. She said many of her out-of-town customers found her bakery by first visiting Milano’s. Along with baked goods, the bakery offers breakfast burritos and soup. The bakery also sells its products at a variety of stores and restaurants in the area.

At Mt. Baker Lodging, which handles more than 100 rental properties in the area, owner Dan Graham equated this season to a rickety roller-coaster ride. December was slow but picked up around the holidays. January and early February wasn’t too bad, he said, but now things have slowed down significantly. One of the biggest challenges right now, he said, is juggling guests who want to change their reservations for March in case a late snow does arrive to provide better skiing and snowboarding conditions.

Along with less than ideal winter weather, the foothill communities also are faced with a weaker Canadian dollar that could possibly deter visitors from the north. Surprisingly that hasn’t happened yet at Mt. Baker Lodging, Graham said. It’s possible that the limited skiing options this year, and that Mt. Baker is less expensive than Whistler, is keeping Canadians interested in this area, he said.

If the snow doesn’t arrive in huge amounts in the coming weeks, many expect it will mean an earlier transition to the spring season. While an early start for hikers would provide tourism money, it doesn’t have the same impact as the winter tourism industry.

“If March doesn’t get (much snow), I think it will be quite concerning to the businesses in this community,” said Verna Robertson, who works at Mt. Baker Lodging.

Graham said that if it remains challenging, he expects the community and businesses to pull together and help each other through it.

“That’s the beauty of a small town,” Graham said. “We’re here to help each other.”