Pros, cons to winter weather, to put it mildly

Four-year-old Owen Richards of Grand Junction opens wide as he takes a bite of peach gelato at Gelato Junction. Owen was downtown enjoying the springlike weather with his mother, Joanna, left, and friend Desmond Danso, 5, not pictured.

A cold bite of gelato wasn’t an easy sell during Gelato Junction’s first three winters in business.

This year, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s making regular appearances in the forecast, owner Paula Hawkins said more people are opting to have a scoop with their lunch at the 449 Main St. establishment. Overall sales at Gelato Junction are up more than 20 percent compared with last winter, Hawkins said, and sales are about 30 percent higher than they were during a particularly chilly winter two years ago.

“I can say the weather probably has a lot to do with it as well as we’re not under construction,” Hawkins said, referring to the June completion of the Downtown Uplift project. “Last year, people just came in for something hot. Now, normally, they sample gelato and save some room for dessert after soup.”

While Hawkins is making money off this year’s mild winter, city of Grand Junction Streets and Solid Waste Manager Darren Starr has saved money.

The magnesium chloride the city spreads during and after snowstorms to clear icy streets costs 70 cents a gallon, Starr said. He budgeted more than $100,000 for the chemical and for salt in the streets division’s Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2011 budget, but he had about $40,000 left in the fund at the end of the year thanks to a lack of freezing temperatures and snowfall, Starr said.

“I think we’ve only had salt brought in one time this winter,” Starr said. “Usually we have salt brought in nine times a year.”

Mesa County is saving money on de-icing chemicals and salt as well, according to county spokeswoman Jessica Peterson. She added the county has been able to save money on overtime for plow drivers, who can be on the streets as early as 3 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. during a winter storm.

With less ice on the roads and on sidewalks, fewer people are sliding into each other and getting in fender-benders, according to Community Hospital Emergency Room Director Vee Edstrom. People slipping and falling on ice is usually a common cause of emergency-room visits this time of year, but not as much this year, she said.

“We’ve been busy, but not with the usual things,” Edstrom said. “We’re busy with ordinary things, not weather-related things.”

Warm, not wet

January and February have been warmer and drier than normal, according to Joe Ramey, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. January’s average high temperature was 44 degrees, which is 4.2 degrees above the historical average, and February’s average high temperatures so far have been 2.3 degrees above normal at 46.4 degrees.

The Grand Valley normally gets 12.4 inches of snow in the first eight weeks of any year. This year, just 5.4 inches of snow have dusted the valley, and 1.7 of those inches fell during a snowstorm a week ago today.

As a result, snow shovel sales are “dead” at Ace Hardware of the Redlands, according to Manager Dick Peterson.

“Where we normally would have sold 200 to 300, we’ve sold less than 20 this year,” Peterson said.

The hardware store at 2140 Broadway has higher hopes for spring sales. The store received its first seeds of the year Wednesday morning, a month ahead of schedule. Peterson said shoppers are perusing grills and pruners earlier than usual as well.

John Burwell Jr., general manager of Peterson Plumbing and Heating, 570 South Westgate Drive, is hoping for a hot summer with more home-cooling calls to make up for a lack of broken heater and pipe calls this winter. He said fewer people are running their heating systems at full blast for extended periods because of the mild weather, which means fewer problems with heating systems. If there is a problem, he said, some people are willing to go without a fix as long as temperatures stay above freezing during the day.

“Some people are avoiding repairs by buying $30 space heaters,” Burwell said.

Mixed consequences

Keeping ice on the new skating rink in an alley behind North Avenue between Third and Fourth streets hasn’t been as difficult as Ice Skating Inc. Executive Director Curt Maki would have imagined, given this winter’s temperatures. But sunny days have pushed back the rink opening time to about 5:30 each night. The ice stays covered with a reflective shield throughout the morning and afternoon because there is no shade over the rink.

“Once the sun goes down, there’s no problem whatsoever,” Maki said.

Maki said the rink will close for the season later this week. He will consider installing a shade over the rink this summer in case next winter is warm and sunny as well.

Orchard Pharmacy Manager Mark Vejraska said he still sees plenty of people pick up prescriptions for wintertime ailments such as colds, bronchitis and sinus infections. But the pharmacy at 1060 Orchard Ave., Unit A, has handed out few prescriptions for serious cases of influenza.

Vejraska said a mild winter may have contributed to a shortage of influenza cases. But he said a quicker end to freezing temperatures could be bad news for spring allergy sufferers.

“We have been hearing about some early allergy symptoms, just anecdotally,” he said. “There may be some things blooming and pollinating earlier than usual.”

Margie Frey, master gardener for the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens, 655 Struthers Ave., said nothing is blooming yet at the botanical gardens. But some things are turning green, and she said anything that blooms early may still be subject to a frost.

“If little flowers pop their heads up, they take their chances,” Frey said.

Springing forward

Despite the chances they take, green thumbs are itching to plant sooner this year, according to Dennis Hill, co-owner of Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road. Although Hill believes it’s too early to plant much, he said the nursery has been “a tad busier” with people looking for seeds the last three weeks.

“We’re ramping up the number of sales and starting to break down the skeleton crew a little bit,” Hill said.

Ski equipment and bulky jackets may not be selling as well this winter. But shoppers at REI, 644 North Ave., are gearing up early for cycling, camping and hiking season, according to REI Outreach Specialist Marea Goodman. The store usually hosts a bicycle maintenance course in late March or early April. This year, Goodman scheduled the spring’s first bicycle maintenance class for March 10. She also predicted Colorado’s Fourteeners, peaks 14,000-feet high and above, will be snow-free as early as June this year, something she said didn’t happen until mid-July last year.

“It’s fair to say all the summer activities will be accessible sooner,” Goodman said.

Ramey at the National Weather Service said the same Climate Prediction Center that projected in September there would be a warm and dry winter in the American Southwest also predicted a warmer and dryer spring. The issue with that, he said, is that snowpack is at 77 percent of the normal level at Mesa Lakes and 66 percent of normal at Park Reservoir near Crag Crest.

“That has implications for water usage and a higher potential for wildfire this summer,” Ramey said.


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