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Snow Shortage is Seen as Disaster in Northern Minnesota
by Amy Radil
January 23, 2000
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Northern Minnesota Lawmakers declared a "no-snow emergency" in their area last week, and told residents they'll seek funding to help them through a third mild winter in a row. While the snow flew in the Twin Cities, ski and snowmobile trails remained in poor condition across much of the northern half of the state. Everyone from gas station owners to snowplow drivers say they're hurting for business. But at least one state official says while its tough, it may not meet the official definition of a disaster.

IT WAS A HIBBING snowblower dealer who finally organized a meeting between legislators and business owners last week, to plead for aid to the region's businesses after Wednesday's blizzard passed them by. The meeting drew restaurant and resort owners and others feeling this year's drought in winter tourism.

David Riddle, director of the Iron Range Trail Convention and Visitors Bureau, says he's noticed empty parking lots at the usual winter tourist stops around town, and heard tales of cancellations. Riddle says problems were first apparent when the Duluth Snocross, a snowmobile event originally scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend at Spirit Mountain, had to be delayed, and then held on machine-made snow.
Riddle: That was kind of the beginning of the season where you're looking at events being postponed or moved back or special conditions or circumstances being dealt with to make sure the event could actually happen.
Northern lawmakers say they're sympathetic to residents' concerns and want to show it. State Senator Doug Johnson and Representative David Tomassoni plan to write bills establishing a $10 million loan fund. And Congressman Jim Oberstar says he'll urge Governor Ventura to look into seeking federal funds through a presidential disaster declaration, a move Ventura's spokesman says he would likely support.

But Kevin Leuer, director of the state's Division of Emergency Management, says such declarations are meant to repair physical losses, and can't legally be used for purely economic assistance.
Leuer: So even if you had a "disaster declaration," the programs that are out there would probably not provide the assistance that's necessary.
Leuer points to failed attempts last year to seek economic-disaster declarations for the state's farmers. The proposals simply didn't meet the guidelines for federal emergency aid. But Leuer says seeking a disaster declaration isn't totally pointless.
Leuer: It certainly draws attention to the issue and the region and may help us to get some other federal programs or assistance that would be viable in this type of situation.
Some point to the state's bail-out of Northwest Airlines in 1994, and say there's a case to be made for a similar approach. Lawmakers and businesses owners are also working to come up with creative solutions in case future winters are equally snowless.

David Riddle says snowmobile fans are asking for the creation of more trails with crushed rock or gravel bases, because those trails can be groomed with less snow. And state Representative Doug Fuller of Bemidji says he'd be willing to shorten the school year, so tourism businesses at least receive the full benefit of summer travelers through Labor Day weekend.
Fuller: You know, we have these three extra mandated school days that a lot of times get schools started before Labor Day, cuts off their dollars and tourist season in the summer, that that would be a help as far as something the state could do to help them out for next year.
Fuller says he'll also support low-interest loans or property-tax forgiveness for hurting businesses.