When the first big snow hits the San Bernardino Mountains, the flatlanders descend upon the town of Running Springs like an avalanche. Their ski-laden cars and pickups clog the roads and turn the town’s tiny commercial center into a parking lot. The winter visitors get stuck in snow banks, track slush into shops and use the restrooms without buying anything.
People up here just love them.
“You can’t get them in and out of here fast enough,” said Dicky Brouelli, assistant cook at Don Pepe’s Casa Blanca restaurant. “This town goes crazy.”
Unfortunately for Running Springs and mountain towns like it all over California, the past five winters have been short on the big snows. Down below, in the rest of Southern California, drought conditions and warm weather make flatlanders more inclined to visit the shore than the slopes. Despite a growing year-round population, the dry conditions can mean fewer customers for nearly every establishment in town, from the ski area to the video rental shop to the kids who put on tire chains for a fee.
Snowfall “affects the whole economy of the hill,” said Frank Brown, manager of Fantasy Video in Running Springs, which also sells tire chains to those caught in unexpected snow storms. “If (winter visitors) stay in one of the motels, they come to one of the two shops in town to rent videos.”
While December is not known for heavy snowfall, the lonely patches of the white stuff surrounded by dry grass only remind locals of the recent spate of poor winters. And with less than three weeks before the all-important Christmas and New Year holidays, local youngsters wandered around Hilltop Boulevard, the commercial spine of Running Springs, in shorts and T-shirts in the midday warmth.
“We are just holding our breath and waiting for the snow,” said Peggy Parson, who works the counter part time at Grumpy’s Bakery and Deli. “We’re dead right now.”
Merchants in this town perched 6,000 feet above sea level say they have managed well without the normal winter seasons, although the winter season is “the cream for the people up here,” said R. Keith Simpson, who moved out of Laguna Beach two years ago to set up a mountaintop medical practice. “If there is a decent season, they really have some money to set aside.”
“That’s when you make your big margins and big sales,” said Running Springs Hardware store owner Ron Pof, whose strong sales of home repair and remodeling supplies have more than offset the lackluster performance of such winter products as snow tires and sleds.
Last winter’s sporadic snowfall left Pof, a former electrical engineer, with plenty of hard-to-sell cold-weather products. “I got real desperate around February. I couldn’t give away snow blowers or snow tires.”
Five miles east of Running Springs on winding Highway 18, signs draped over the entrance to Snow Valley Ski Resort proclaim a "$25 Special” on lift tickets and “Sale! 20% to 70% Off” at a ski shop. The middle of the week finds only four chairs of the 13 chairlifts in operation and a few skiers making runs down the machine-made snowpack.
“If it rained down there, we would just be packed up here,” said general manager Benno J. Nager, looking out upon the nearly silent slopes of the 53-year-old resort. Nager says Snow Valley has remained profitable despite poor snow conditions that reduced the number of skier visits to 150,000 last winter from 250,000 during a normal season.
However, the sharp decline in skiers and the expense of snow making--which has already reached nearly $100,000 this season--leaves less money for $5 million worth of expansion and renovation projects.
“Those plans are entirely dependent on the success of the coming ski season,” said Nager, who notes that his problems and those of other ski resorts in the area reverberate into neighboring towns. “A bad season has a negative effect all the way down the line.”
Carol and Bill Carlisle have also had to cut back on improvement projects at their nine-unit Cloud 9 Lodge in Running Springs. Instead of buying new mattresses and carpeting all at once, the couple have decided to spread the projects over two years.
“If we had good skiing up here, we’d be full seven days a week,” said Carol Carlisle. “It’s the midweek business, it’s running one-third full. Sometimes it’s even less than that. We can survive. But it makes it a lot tougher. The money doesn’t come in and you’re just sitting there.”
Still, the Carlisles and other Running Springs merchants are not about to sell out and move out of the town that began as a lumber mill settlement nearly a century ago. The 6,000 residents of the unincorporated town and surrounding communities were lured here by the small-town atmosphere that they believe offers a cleaner, safer lifestyle than what is generally available down at the “bottom of the hill” in the rest of Southern California.
“The quality of life up here is quite good,” said Simpson, whose practice features a vintage medical cabinet and the medicine kit and microscope owned by his great grandfather, a Civil War physician. “It’s far superior to my life down in the beach communities.”
The lifestyle and relatively inexpensive housing have lead to a surge in full-time locals. Realtor Kay Fugate says her sales are running ahead of last year, and more than half of the buyers plan to live up here year-round. “That is quite a difference. The percentage of (full-time) sales has increased over the last five years.”
The change has lead many merchants to beef-up customer service to cater to the growing pool of year-round residents, who often shop down below for lower prices and better selection.
After buying Mountain Mercantile earlier this year, Patty Houk and her husband have remodeled the grocery store, added fancy new products such as stuffed pork chops and banned the cashier from smoking on the job.
During the winter season, “our business improves, but we don’t depend on it,” said Houk, who says out-of-towners account for 25% of sales during January and February. “We want to cater to the locals . . . and customer service is our main thing.”
Still, there is nothing like a blanket of new snow to send business soaring. “You couldn’t even walk in the store on weekends--it was mobbed,” said Houk, who clerked at the store before buying it. “But that was six or seven years ago.”