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EVEN IF THE WEATHER ISN'T FRIGHTFUL, BUSINESS AT RESORT IS BOOMING

Granted, all that "dreaming of a white Christmas" business didn't quite work this time around. But that never stopped a season in the Aspen of the East.

Amid their busiest week of the year, business and ski resort owners here are touting bigger turnouts than last year -- the result of cheery optimism, non-refundable deposits and the lure of Ellicottville's polished small-town charm.

Not to mention the creek water, compressed air and miles of underground pipeline that spray piles of man-made snow onto the slopes of local ski resorts every day.

"The snow-making is what makes the difference. We expand it every year," said Jane Eshbaugh of Holiday Valley resort. "We're way ahead of last year. Last year's weather was like the pits. This is very early in the season, but we're confident."

While all skiers worth their bindings will argue the differences between real snow and the manufactured powder, those on the slopes this weekend agreed: Forget the iffy weather, this season is already a success.

"It's cold here, they've got good base, and they're making a lot of snow. We knew the conditions would be good," said Linda Hamilton, who with family and friends drove 6 1/2 hours from Michigan to ski for three days in Ellicottville.

"In Michigan, we don't have anything to compare to this," she said. "There's a 1,200-foot drop here -- in Michigan there's nothing like that."

"I've skied on natural snow, and I've skied on man-made snow, and I can't tell the difference," added William Hamilton. "This is just a great part of the country to live in if you love the outdoors."

Like many of the ski enthusiasts visiting area resorts, the Hamiltons arrived to find local inns packed to near-capacity and restaurants doing booming business.

Bill Osbaldeston, owner of Edelweiss Lodge, said Sunday that he was close to his 175-guest limit -- mostly out-of-state skiers, with about 70 percent from Ohio.

"This is the busiest full week. But weekends here are always busy. Next weekend we'll be maxed too, and the weekend after that," said Osbaldeston, formerly an inn owner in Aspen.

Osbaldeston said skiers flock to the village -- even if there isn't any natural snow -- for two reasons: Ellicottville is reasonable, and it's a fun place even when the weather doesn't cooperate.

"Colorado will cost you a lot more money. It's just much more expensive. But this is known as a family resort," he said. "Plus, people have planned on these days off. They enjoy the restaurants and the shops. They'll come anyway."

Chris Brown, owner of the bustling Sport Depot in the center of the village, said that although business is good so far this year, a big snowfall would make it even better. The pros know the difference between real snow and the fake stuff, he said, and a big snowstorm will bring out even more skiers.

That natural phenomenon might not be too far away, according to weather experts.

The entire region -- including metro Buffalo and the ski areas -- could get hit tonight or early Tuesday with 6 inches of snow or more, if a storm moving along the Atlantic seaboard stays on course, said Tom Niziol of the National Weather Service office at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

This week's temperatures are expected to drop off as well, Niziol said, reaching the mid-20s by Wednesday.

"There are indications of a lot of snow coming. That would set the stage for skiing conditions later in the week," Niziol said.

That is great news for local residents like Craig Dininny, a ski instructor.

"If people don't see it in their back yard, they don't believe we have good conditions," he said. "If they see it in their back yard, they come."

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