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The downtown winter challenge
The science and burden of the season’s intense winter weather

03/13/14
By Rebecca Fishow rfishow@hippopress.com



 This winter, stop-and-go snow and frigid temperatures have had southern New Hampshire residents vacillating between bunking down and bundling up to dig themselves out of their homes. The relentless winter weather has impacted downtown areas too, packing snowbanks up along roads, creating icy barriers to storefronts, and giving snow removal crews a run for their money.

“It’s a challenge,” said Will Stewart, vice president of economic development and advocacy for the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. “From snow and ice on sidewalks themselves to snowbanks that get piled up on sidewalks, you find yourself having to step into traffic. ... I climb over them myself on daily basis.”
 
Vortex + clipper = monster snowbanks
When it comes to cold and snow, “there’s been no breaks,” said Hometown Forecast Service’s Rob Carolan, who advises some of the state’s snow removal authorities. It’s a product of two weather phenomena joining forces: the Polar Vortex and the Alberta Clipper.
First, the infamous Polar Vortex: It’s a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near the North Pole. It has pushed  below-normal temperatures into southern New Hampshire with a ferocious consistency that prevents the usual thawing. As a result, this February was about 4 degrees colder than normal.
“We’ve had colder winters, but the impressive thing about this winter is it’s been consistently cold,” Carolan said.
Factor that into a weather pattern called Alberta Clipper, which swoops south and east from western Canada. It’s a fairly common storm system, normally only producing 2 to 3 inches of snow each time it passes near the region.
 But because of the cold, there’s been a much larger volume of snow. It’s what meteorologists call an increase in the “fluffiness factor,” Carolan said. Normally, every inch of rain produces 10 inches of snow, but this winter, an inch of rain has been producing 20 to 30 inches of snow.
Since December, Concord has been pummeled with 72 inches of snow, while normal snowfall is 44.1 inches for an entire season. Nashua and Manchester have seen about the same. While total snowfall traditionally comes from Nor’easters, which dump the snow all at once and provide lots of time between them for cleanup, this winter Alberta Clippers have been the region’s main source of snow. That plus the fact that the snow isn’t thawing means the city’s snow removers have had their hands full. 
 
Stalled downtown snow removal 
On a normal year, city officials have a snow maintenance strategy that more or less works. Their first priority is plowing major intersections and roads, which includes downtown areas. Then, they plow the other city streets. Once that’s done, the snow teams get back downtown and spend a few days clearing sidewalks and parking lots, and removing snow banks. 
“We’ve had so many storms one right after another that cities are busy plowing the mains the whole time,” Carolan said. “They just aren’t getting a chance to go and clear out what we need to clear out.”
In Manchester, the Department of Public Works is responsible for both plowing and snow removal when the banks get too high, and though the department recognizes accessibility concerns of  downtown store owners,  the weather patterns have largely prevented its progress. For weeks any desire to remove the snow was squashed by storm after storm, said Kevin Sheppard, DPW director. His crews weren’t able to scoop up the towering snowbanks until  Feb. 23.
“It certainly has been challenging, especially in the downtown area,” he said. “We hadn’t had the opportunity to pick up snow banks because of the weather.”
Nashua’s Street Department has run into similar problems. 
“The challenges have been that we have had storms one right after another,” said Eric Ryder, superintendent of the Nashua Streets Department. “One of the toughest parts is making sure the crew gets adequate rest in between storms.”
Ryder said that this winter has been a learning experience, and he will sit down with his key personnel to brainstorm for next year. 
The departments are also running short on funds. By the end of February, Manchester used just over its $1.2 million snow removal budget. It looks internally to see if there are other areas it can take the money from, but if the department feels like money is going to be a problem in the next month it will notify the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to request more funds. Nashua has exhausted its $1.3 million budget and has dipped into a $302,000 trust fund. 
 
Businesses bearing the brunt 
Many downtown shop owners and employees said winter has been a much bigger burden this year than ever before. 
“Basically, we are at the mercy of snow removal. We are at the mercy of the city,” said Cheryl Scaramuzzi, store manager of Capital Craftsmen and Romance Jewelers in Concord. “[We are] constantly shoveling after snowstorms because it’s hard to have access to downtown. It has been brutally cold. If someone is shopping downtown, they have a purpose.”
Andrea Lessard, owner of Shop Estella in Manchester, said while February is a slow month for shopping anyway, the conditions have stunted traffic even more. 
“Where I am, it’s hard for people parking on the street. I know the city plows a path out right next to the meters, but they could do more to make sidewalks a little bit more accessible,” Lessard said. 
A thin path to the parking meter doesn’t always cut it, shop owners agreed.
“It’s been horrendous because [people] can’t get over the banks to pay,” Kathy Hamel, owner of With Heart and Hand Unique Gifts in Manchester, said in a phone interview. “A customer is in the shop right now ... and she is saying it’s a very big hassle.”
The below-average temperatures make it worse, because property and business owners sometimes park closer to their buildings — in the spots that would be otherwise used by shoppers, Hamel said. 
“If everybody [who works] on Elm would try to leave spots for visitors and park on side streets, the vibrancy would just increase tenfold,” she said. 
While most businesses did not report significantly reduced sales, Lucky Dog Thrift Shop in Nashua said it has been particularly hard hit. The store is the fundraising headquarters for Tails to Freedom, an organization that helps rescue animals in need. It donates all of its profits to the organization. This year, days of weather-related closure and a difficult downtown parking situation have resulted in diminished sales, and consequently less money for Tails to Freedom. 
“It’s absolutely affected our income and ability to help animals,” said Susan McMullen, office manager. “While we have continued to get numerous calls for help, and a lot have been emergencies, with the shop being closed the income and sales are not there to help offset the costs.” 
Monster snowbanks can also make storefront advertising difficult, especially for the new businesses that tend to rely more heavily on foot traffic for clientele. 
“In my case, I was just starting a new business before the winter,” said Debra Woods, owner of Soul Fire Massage in Manchester.  “If you were an established business you already have clientele. … Something as simple as putting up signs is hard to do.”
Other downtown businesses noted that New Hampshire’s residents are of a hearty stock and try not to let snow slow them down. 
“We had some people brave the storm in like 4 feet of snow and walk out with like $4 worth of items,” said Chris Meyer, senior sales associate at Manchester’s Music and Art. 
 
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.
 
 





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