Shovel Ready: Nation's Capital Finds Winter Weather Boon and Boondoggle

Do snowstorms stimulate or stifle the recession-weary U.S. economy?

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2010— -- In a town accustomed to starting new government programs to create jobs and spark economic activity, some Washington, D.C., area businesses are hailing the wintry mess of the past four days as a "shovel-ready" economic stimulus project in the making.

But experts say this month's storms, with their "historic'" proportions, are ultimately a net negative for taxpayers, who foot the bill for snow cleanup and the lost productivity of more than 230,000 idle federal employees. Official Washington was shut down for a third straight snow day -- unprecedented in recent times.

Office of Personnel Management chief John Berry, who decides when to close the federal government, has said each snow day costs taxpayers an estimated $100 million in work government employees don't do.

Federal workers are still paid for the unanticipated days off due to weather. Other government shutdowns – such as the six-day closure in November 1995 during a budget dispute in Congress – furloughed non-essential workers, thereby saving taxpayers money.

Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics, a company that studies the economic impact of storms, told ABC News the unrelenting snow and ice that's hit the mid-Atlantic this year is especially bad news for taxpayers worried about government deficits and the overall health of the U.S. economy in 2010.

"Many of our governments have all blown their snow removal budgets already; I don't know where this money is going to come from," he said.

Virginia has exhausted its $79 million in snow removal funds for the season -- plus a $25 million emergency reserve. Maryland's $26 million snow budget dried up after the December snowstorms and has now spent nearly double that amount on storm cleanup.

In the District of Columbia, where the average annual snowfall is 15 inches, officials say they've long since used up the $6.2 million slated for snow removal this season. D.C. has had over 45 inches of snow this winter, and 18 inches more could be on the ground by Wednesday night.

The District government estimates the average cost of a fully-deployed snow removal operation at over $110,000 per shift.

Wednesday's storm "is normally a pretty big snow for Washington," said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. "But we've already had two more of these in the past week and a half. It's causing major complications."

Blizzards Are Boon to Some Businesses

But some businesses and retailers are cheering the snowstorms for helping their bottom lines.

"We love the snow!" Mark Schneider, co-owner of Schoenberg Salt Company, one of the largest distributors of bulk de-icing chemicals in the Northeast, told ABC News.

"January was a very slow month; now February flipped completely the other way. Is this a record year? No, not yet. But business has definitely been strong."

Schneider says his company, which typically imports 500 to 600 truckloads of rock salt each winter from South American suppliers, is receiving calls around the clock from the states of Maryland and Virginia asking for additional de-icing supplies.

For now, he says happily, the company has been able to fill those orders. But if the latest storm is as bad as forecasters predict – dumping 10 to 20 inches of snow from the mid-Atlantic into New England – existing supplies may reach a "tipping point."

"You can't just call up and order more. Shipments from Chile are planned months in advance," he said. Keeping up with demand for salt and other winter-weather supplies has been difficult for grocery store chains, hardware stores, and plow owners – many of whom are having an economic boom while the rest of the country struggles.

"Incredible," said Anthony Bishop of Valley Crest landscapers in Clarksburg, Md., whose business is plowing driveways instead of mowing lawns this time of year. "We've had to bring back our seasonal guys who are normally off this time of year."

Bishop says he employs 80 to 100 workers, who have been earning significant overtime pay to shovel walks, run snowblowers and operate plows across the Washington metropolitan area.

The storm has also been good for small, owner-operated snow removal businesses.

Heather Medlin, who owns and operates Grass Gators lawn care and snow removal with her husband in Westminster, Md., said the demand has been so strong that they've had to turn down new clients.

Lots of calls from people in a hurry," she said. Her husband has hired a friend to help out with the 12 regular jobs they have on the books.

"The best thing is that we've been able to make payments we hadn't expected to make through the winter on a loan for a new lawn mower," she said.

Expert: Despite Bright Spots, Snowstorms Are 'Net Negative' for U.S. Economy

While many retailers are reporting strong sales of snow-removal goods, steady food and entertainment purchases are also helping businesses' bottom lines.

Many grocery stores, particularly in the hard-hit mid-Atlantic, say they can hardly keep shelves stocked with staple items. Hardware stores are sold out of shovels, snow blowers and salt. And gas stations are slammed with consumers trying to fill up.

Analysts say beer and wine sales, already up during the recession, tend to spike before and during snowstorms. And some anecdotal evidence suggests condoms have also been in high demand.

But do these economic bright spots from winter weather amount to a shot in the arm for our recession-weary economy?

Not really, says Scott Bernhardt.

"Sure, you sell a lot more snow throwers, there's a run on the grocery stores right before a storm, but frankly, who's going to be shopping at Talbot's tomorrow? Nobody," he said.

Many businesses -- from restaurants and clothiers to movie theaters and shopping malls -- decide to close their doors during and immediately after a severe storm, resulting in costly lost revenue.

"It's been a rough week and a half," said Rockville, Md., based caterer Mitchell Wool. "We're having jobs pulled left and right."

Bill Kirk, an analyst with Weather Trends International, estimates that the combination of snow storms and frigid temperatures this month could result in retail sales being cut in half from what they were this time last year.

Retailers, by some estimates, already lost $2 billion in sales when a snowstorm hit the East Coast on the Saturday before Christmas. Experts say the financial toll of the latest storms is expected to be worse.

ABC News' Charles Herman contributed to this report.