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Unseasonably cold March frustrating for outdoor businesses

| Monday, March 31, 2014, 9:20 a.m.

Old Man Winter is stubbornly clinging to life with an unseasonably cold March and early April, leaving outdoor businesses eager to pull the plug as the will's beneficiaries.

All month, winter-like temperatures have left golf clubs collecting dust and cobwebs in the basement. Grass seed, mulch and liquid weed killer remain fully stocked on store shelves, and outdoor contractors have put a laundry list of projects on hold until the ground thaws.

“It's killing us,” said Tom Czwalga, general manager of Penn Fencing Inc. in Butler. “We have 48 people waiting to get their fences in, but we can't do anything with the ground frozen as thick as it is. This is the first time in almost a decade we've been pushed back this late.”

If forecasts from the National Weather Service in Moon are accurate, the ground could remain frozen until late April.

The service predicts dailyaverage temperatures through the first half of the month to dip at least 4 degrees below normal temperatures, which range from 55 to 35 degrees, meteorologist Lee Hendricks said.

“It reflects the overall weather pattern we've been in since January,” Hendricks said. “It really doesn't look like we're going to get any significant changes in the near future after a very cold March.”

This March ranked among the top 15 coldest since 1872, with an average temperature of 32.8 degrees as of Thursday, according to the weather service. That's about 7 degrees colder than average temperatures found for the month of March since 1981.

This month's average low, at 24.2 degrees, falls well below the normal March level of 30 degrees.

Despite the unusual frigidity, the Alle-Kiski Valley escaped March comparatively dry with its 4.1 inches of snowfall paling in comparison to the month's 7.6-inch average.

But that lack of snow is inconsistent with 2014 figures, which reflect 62.5 inches of total snowfall, or 159 percent of the normal 39.1 inches.

“It's been an unusual winter with the combination of heavy snow and severely low temperatures,” Hendricks said. “Typically, cold temperatures like that come from arctic outbreaks, which carry little moisture with them. This winter, though, we've had both.”

After profiting for months off the brutal winter weather, Kim Eckrich, general manager of the Busy Beaver in New Kensington, says it's now preventing the store from living up to its name. The store's spring inventory, which contains everything from fertilizer to outdoor furniture sets, has been barely picked over as consumers wait for the weather to break, he said.

“We're ready to rock and roll,” Eckrich said. “We've got crates of everything for the spring weather. But until it comes around, no one else will. This time last year, this stuff was flying out the door.”

One thing the Busy Beaver has been selling plenty of, Eckrich said, is lumber. It's the top-selling material as people continue to undergo interior renovations and stock up for spring projects they can't yet begin.

Busy Beaver customer Bob Carrigan falls into the latter category. The Lower Burrell resident said the materials he bought to build a handrail for his elderly friend's front steps have sat untouched in his garage for weeks.

“I have all the material, I just haven't been able to put it in yet,” he said. “It's not like he's going outside, anyway, the weather being the way it is.”

The weather won't stop Chris Gioella, 24, of Verona from partaking in his annual spring tradition of tailgating for the Pirates' opening day at PNC Park. Gioella says he'll be there whether or not he has tickets, regardless of the weather.

Fortunately for Gioella, the forecast is calling for a slight respite from the winter weather. It's expected to be sunny with highs reaching the low 60s for the first pitch on Monday against the Chicago Cubs.

“It's not spring until the Bucs start playing,” he said. “I'm just glad it's supposed to be nicer that day. I've felt like it's never going to be warm again.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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