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SLAVSKY: How Michigan's weather trends affect local business, outdoor culture

• Feb 16, 2018 at 1:00 PM

In October 2017, a local board shop called Wind, Waves and Wheels (also known as W3) based out of Kentwood closed their doors for good after 33 years of selling snowboards to the greater Grand Rapids community. A friend of mine went in to peruse the liquidation sale at W3, struck up a conversation with an employee and cordially asked why the shop was closing.

The employee grimly replied, “Winter doesn’t come to Michigan anymore.”

Three weeks ago, I sat on my front porch in Grand Rapids reading with a coffee in shorts and a T-shirt, basking in the unseasonably warm January sunshine. Of course, the sun is invigorating and life breathing, but also disheartening because everyone knows this isn’t what January is supposed to feel like. Anyone who grew up in the Midwest knows that January means scraping ice off the windshield as the car warms and gearing up to battle the tundra every time you step outside — not taking casual afternoon strolls in a T-shirt and windbreaker.

Today, as I write this, it’s cold and windy with a few inches of snow on the ground. I don’t check the weather forecast because I don’t have to — I’m sure soon after this gets published we will have gone through another spring-like thaw with a handful of 50-degree days before it freezes again. Our Michigan winter-lives have gotten used to the cyclical freeze-thaw-refreeze; but, unfortunately, the outdoor industry has not.

When W3 first opened in ’84, they were set up like a Ron Jon-esque surf shop, selling predominately surfboards, bathing suits and sunglasses to match the hip Southern California “surfer-dude” vibe of the day. In 1987, a gentleman named Todd Andrews took over the shop and was keen on an up-and-coming adventure sport that would prove to be less trendy to the Michigander than surfing: snowboarding.

Michigan is not a state renowned for extreme sports. We are (relatively) flat with (relatively) moderate weather. However, there is a certain Michigan pride in our endearing, character-building winters, as well as an ardent snowboarding community that has flourished over the past three decades.

Throughout my mid-teenage years in the early 2010s, I spent most of my summer landscaping money on overpriced snowboarding passes at Alpine Valley in the winter, a Southern Michigan ski hill. It’s not like I was reasonably spending all my money at mountains out West like Keystone or Vail; I was happily blowing my money on a glorified mound with ski lifts. I would arrange rides to Alpine nearly every day after school — I loved it and I was thrilled with it.

In the early 1990s, after Andrews took over, W3 vamped up their snowboard sales to the point where it became their top seller. “Back in the early days,” Andrews reminisced, “it always felt like there was snow and the sport was hot and you could put anything on the shelf and people will buy it. ... We had a niche. We knew what we were doing. We grew with the sport — there were years we sold over 500 snowboards.”

When W3 first opened its doors in 1984, the average snow depth in January in Grand Rapids was 8.4 inches. Ten years later, in 1994, it was 6.3 inches. Last January — the year that W3 went out of business — the average snow depth was 0.8 inch, less than one-tenth the snow depth of the opening year.

The warmest it got in January of 1984 was 36. In 2017, the warmest it got was 61. Additionally, the coldest temperature in January 2017 was 2. That is a temperature fluctuation of 58.9 over the course of a month — that cyclical freeze-thaw routine we’ve gotten so used to.

In ’84, even the hottest January temperature was still barely enough to melt the snow. Due to climate change, over the last three decades average winter temperatures have been steadily increasing as average snow depth has been steadily decreasing — needless to say, this is bad for business as well as the passionate outdoor culture in Michigan.

Andrews sold the shop in 2012 to move to Colorado with his wife while, quote, “we’re still young enough” to snowboard as much as they can in the Rockies. Even though he was five years removed from the closing of W3, he was still deeply affected by it, as he had been ingrained in the West Michigan snowboarding community for most of his life.

Andrews lamented: “The statistics tell the story. There are a lot of factors in anything closing — from weather, to online shopping, to politics, to ownership, to management — but weather plays a big role in that industry. There’s no reason to have a snowboard if there’s no snow.”

Over the past three years, I’ve been snowboarding less than 10 days — I would’ve gone that many times in two weeks when I was 15. I also haven’t purchased any new gear since 2012. I still love the sport with all my heart, but at this point in my life it’s difficult to justify spending the money to ride on slushy, icy, dirty or rocky conditions.

It hurts to watch local businesses that have thrived for decades suffocate and shut down because of factors so far out of their hands. I sincerely hope, in spite of the sub-par conditions, that there is still a booming generation of young riders who are stoked to be snowboarding on anything at all.

— Bennett Slavsky wrote this opinion piece for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. He is a former journalism intern for the Grand Rapids-based organization.

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