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    Snow and ice may be fun for the youngsters, yet they are anything but smooth sledding for business.
    Area merchants and owners are emerging from the worst winter in a generation, battered and bruised and looking forward to sunnier times.
    “Operationally, I’ve had worse years in terms of the weather,” said Darryl Collins, executive vice president and retail market director over Commerce Bank’s 49 locations in the metropolitan area. “But clearly it was on our minds this year.”
    Banks hold a twofold responsibility, he said. “Safety is the top priority when we make decisions. But we have to balance that with the fiduciary responsibility to our customers, particularly small businesses.”
    This year, the bank chain closed early two days in the St. Louis market, Jan. 6 and Feb. 4. Each of the days was unique.
    January 6 was a Monday and the severe predictions were clear the night before. Commerce made the call to allow each branch to open if possible, and all managed to do it, even if a bit late. As the day went on, the weather got worse, he said, and the decision was made early in the afternoon to send all employees home.
    Tuesday, Feb. 4, was more of an enigma.
    “They were predicting quite an event and nothing was happening,” Collins said. “I was talking to my managers and peers at other banks. I had an appointment in Edwardsville and decided to drive over. Then, the weather started to turn on us about 2 p.m.”
    Again the call was made to close early and again the decision was timed to help employees avoid heavy traffic and the potential for freezing on the roads as nightfall approached. The drive-ups are traditionally opened until 6 p.m.
    Commerce took more advantage of social media, using Twitter to get the message out. Whether customers appreciated that notification or simply were staying home with much of the rest of the population, Commerce did not receive a single call of complaint about the early closings, Collins said.
    He compared the bank’s contemplative situation to that of individual school districts, while noting that Commerce’s service area gives it a bit of an advantage in terms of weather geography.
    “A bad day in Belleville might not be in Ellisville or St. Charles,” he said.
    While technology has improved the caliber of meteorology, it’s also helped the financial world’s response to natural events. So many things are done on line that the need for physical transport has greatly dwindled, Collins said.
    In the old bad-weather days, he would be always worried about the couriers that the banks had running between each branch twice a day. He said he would be constantly doing logistical planning around that problem, making past years’ situations more difficult than this year’s.
    All businesses were inconvenienced this winter, with auto dealers and restaurants among those hardest hit. But some owners just coped as needed.
    Jim Bohannon, of Belleville, watched the weather from two perches, one as a salesman at Mueller Furniture store and the other as the owner of Cox Interior Supply, a custom woodwork business.
    Compared to being laid off from another job during the recession in 2008, he said Mother Nature’s wrath wasn’t so bad.
    “The furniture store was affected a little bit. We were closed three days for the storm in January and I think a couple of other days we had no traffic. Other than that I think we had a pretty decent few months (since the first snow of the season, back in November).”
    Builders with whom he works managed their way through it, he said. At a project in Chester, workers continued framing a home even at the height of the bad weather.
    Some builders who couldn’t work spent time indoors, finalizing blueprints, he said.
    “Everybody’s just got to struggle through it,” Bohannon said.
    Lee Hamel, president of Availability Inc., a staffing agency based in Alton, said he remembers worse snow seasons, and his office exercises a practical approach regardless.
    “We deal with a common sense policy. If it’s too dangerous to get in or to be out, just stay home,” he said.
    Availability offers professional staffing services in the St. Louis region, either temporary or permanent to clients that need office help, many of them in the legal or medical community.
    Hamel said he could not recall a single instance in 32 years on the job where a business called requesting a fill-in worker during a bad snow day. Most businesses he deals with are more sensitive to weather issues.
    “They should be,” he said.
    He said he was able to keep his office open every day as planned because at least some of the staff lives close by.
    Illinois home sales were gloomy — decreasing 6.2 percent over previous-year levels in February while median prices increased 6.9 percent, according to the Illinois Association of Realtors, which attributed the sales decline to a specific factor.
    “The start of the year has been bedeviled by bad weather,” Phil Chiles, president of the association, said in a statement.
    Another realty expert agreed.
    “Clearly, the dismal, persistent winter weather dampened enthusiasm for the housing market in early 2014; however, the forecast for month-to-month sales indicates positive trends for the next three months,” said Geoffrey J.D. Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory of the University of Illinois.
    The Realtors group said the number of homes actually on the market was down, too.
    Statewide home sales (including single-family homes and condominiums) in February 2014 totaled 7,868 homes sold, down from 8,388 in February 2013. The number of houses on the market in February was down 19.2 percent compared to a year earlier, dropping from 70,053 homes for sale in February 2013 to 56,620 this year.
    Only 40 of 102 counties in Illinois showed annual home sales increases in February 2014, the Realtors association said.

IBJ Business News

Bank accepting aps for annual scholarships

    U.S. Bank is now accepting applications for the 2014 U.S. Bank Scholarship Program.
    U.S. Bank will award $1,000 scholarships to 35 students through a random drawing. Applications will be accepted through May 29. Students can review official terms online at www.usbank.com/scholarship.