The weather outside was frightful, but Tar Heel ski resorts apparently racked up a delightful year because of it. Ideal snow-making temperatures and ample natural snowfall trumped a bleak economy. The timing of crucial three- and four-day winter holiday weekends also helped, says Mike Doble, whose Boone-based SkiNorthCarolina tracks industry conditions. When all figures are in, he says, “I’d lay money on it being a record setter.”
Doble estimates as many as 550,000 people visited the state’s six ski resorts and two snow-tubing parks, eclipsing the previous best season, 2002-03. About 540,000 came then, according to a study by Appalachian State University faculty. The economic impact probably was about $150 million for the 2008-09, about $30 million more than in 2002-03.
The industry trade group — the North Carolina Ski Areas Association — had a slightly less positive view, though President Gil Adams believes the season will be among the best in recent years. He and Doble agree that proximity created prosperity. About 40% of skiers on Tar Heel slopes come from inside the state. Some who would have flown to New England or western slopes in better times stayed closer to home. “The ski industry is pretty much bombproof when it comes to recession,” Doble says. “People are going to find a way to make a ski trip or two during the season.” But weather clearly was the biggest factor. It was unusually cold and snowy. “This year,” Doble says, “there were four important holiday periods in which conditions were at least decent, and for Presidents Day and the Martin Luther King holiday, conditions were absolutely phenomenal.” Ski season usually starts Thanksgiving and runs through most of March, weather permitting.
To make artificial snow, temperatures must be in the mid-30s — the lower the better. Natural snow came in mostly well-timed storms that dropped 6 to 8 inches. By late in the season, Ski Beech and Sugar Mountain, two of the largest resorts, had measured more than 50 inches. “This year, there really hasn’t been a general thaw that lasted 10 days or so like we usually have,” Doble says. A brief warm spell in late December was quickly offset by a cold January and February, Adams adds.
At stake are more than bragging rights for the resorts. Skiing helps fill a gap in western North Carolina’s job market with otherwise scarce winter employment, economists say, giving it a year-round tourism economy. The Ski Areas Association estimates that the slopes and lodges provide work for about 1,800 full-time and part-time employees.