Vermont's Northeast Kingdom | Change Coming to the Kingdom
Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom has long been known for its isolated beauty and the deep snows of Jay Peak. Now millions of dollars are pouring into small towns from foreign investors. What that means for the Kingdom is anyone’s guess—except that it will never be the same.
Cavan Meese parked the golf cart in the middle of the airport runway, leaned back in the seat, extracted a pouch of American Spirit tobacco, and commenced to hand-roll a cigarette with the confident dexterity born of experience. “Just keep an eye up, okay?” he said as he rolled, and I wasn’t sure whether he was joking, or whether the risk of incoming aircraft really was sufficient to warrant visual monitoring. I thought the former more likely, but when you’re sitting in a golf cart parked in the middle of a runway and your driver suggests that you “keep an eye up,” you darned well better keep an eye up.
Not that danger felt imminent. The runway upon which Meese had parked the cart was a vacant, windswept thing, laid across a vacant, windswept field on the outskirts of the small town of Newport, Vermont, so close to the Canadian border that a Quebecer with a keen nose could probably catch a whiff of the smoke rising from my companion’s cigarette. The airport itself was a modest affair; located across the road from a dairy farm, it consisted of two runways, a row of boxy, metal-sided hangars, and a terminal that was perhaps 20 feet square. There was one plane in sight, a small two-seater parked near the terminal. A man was washing it by hand; he was the only other person in sight. A scant half-mile to the north lay the regional dump.
All of which is to say, it seemed to me a most unlikely spot to open a restaurant, which is exactly what Cavan Meese had done in one of the hangars at the runway’s edge. Parker Pie Wings is what he’d called it, and its grand opening had begun only an hour before we climbed into the golf cart. The restaurant was an informal pizza-and-beer joint modeled after the Parker Pie Company, his informal pizza-and-beer venture a dozen miles to the south, in the sleepy hamlet of West Glover. As I was learning, Cavan Meese was an informal pizza-and-beer sort of guy.
“A lot of smart people who are looking after my best interests are asking me, ‘Do you really think that airport has enough traffic to support a restaurant?’” he told me as we sat on the vacant runway. It was quiet and cool in that way early August can be, a subtle foreshadowing of the months to come. “And I say to them, ‘No, not in the least.’” He chuckled in the rueful manner of a man who knows the joke may yet prove to be on him. He took a drag from his cigarette and sent a stream of smoke into the air. “Nope. Not in the least.”
Ah, but Cavan Meese is being too modest, because he knows that the quiet airport just outside Newport, Vermont, where one can currently park a golf cart in the middle of a runway and casually roll a cigarette without fear of being landed upon by an airplane or so much as interrupted by another living soul, is about to get a whole lot less quiet. Cavan Meese knows that sometime over the next year or so, construction crews will arrive. He knows they will extend the runways to the 5,000-foot minimum necessary to accommodate most private jets; he knows they will construct a new terminal and new hangars. He knows that soon an aviation company will locate at the airport for the express purpose of building cutting-edge composite aircraft in a brand-new 50,000-square-foot facility. And he knows that all this activity will bring engineers and building crews. It will bring paving companies and airport personnel. It will bring bystanders and onlookers. Someday it may even bring passengers. All of these people, Cavan Meese knows, will at some point in their day become hungry. And when they look around, what will they see? Parker Pie Wings’ big logo affixed to the side of a former aircraft hangar—that’s what they’ll see.
“Everybody likes pizza,” he tells me, and he chuckles again, but this time, not ruefully. Even as he says it, I can feel a grumbling in my stomach begin.
The expansion of Newport State Airport, ambitious as it sounds, is but a slice of the pie known as the Northeast Kingdom Development Initiative. The project is so ambitious, so outsized and fantastical, so multifaceted, and so subject to the whims of money and fancy that simply explaining it feels almost burdensome. Oh, sure, the broad strokes are easy enough: Over the next few years, if the plan unfolds as predicted, more than $600 million will flow into one of New England’s poorest regions. The money will be splashed across a multitude of enterprises, including (but not limited to) a biomedical facility and “research park,” the aforementioned airport expansion and aviation manufacturing facility, a waterfront marina and conference center, a reconstructed city block with retail and office space and short- to medium-term rentals, and an expanded ski resort. In total, the initiative is expected to create approximately 10,000 jobs in a region where the labor force is estimated at 30,750 people.
To understand how such a thing could come about in a rural area that has long suffered from high unemployment, low wages, and a general sense of chronic economic malaise, you need to understand a bit about a program known as the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa. EB-5 is a federal program that removes pretty much every barrier to U.S. citizenship except one: money. Under the basic EB-5 program, would-be U.S. citizens can earn a green card simply by investing $1 million in a new commercial enterprise that leads to the creation of 10 or more jobs.
But under the EB-5 program that will potentially change the face of Vermont’s most remote region, that barrier to entry has been lowered significantly. That’s because the NEK has been identified as a “Targeted Employment Area,” which basically means that the need for capital and jobs is great enough that additional inducements are justified. Those inducements include cutting the investment requirement in half, to $500,000, and the creation of an EB-5 Regional Center Program that allows investors to be limited partners in an enterprise. It also allows the 10-job minimum to be met through “indirect employment”; in other words, a job created at a local convenience store to serve the increased demand for gasoline and Cheez Doodles owing to the opening of a new manufacturing plant becomes a viable part of the count. Today, there are EB-5 projects underway in all 50 states across the country.
So yes, the EB-5 program is an essential component of the NEK Development Initiative. Without it, there would be no talk of that $600 million river of cash and of the 10,000 jobs it carries. There would be no talk of a luxurious resort hotel and conference center, upscale restaurants, and gleaming biomedical facilities in the Vermont city saddled with the state’s highest unemployment rate. There would be no talk of change and progress, of opportunity and transformation, of prosperity and upward mobility. There would be no talk of turning the aforementioned town—Newport—into a destination for vacationers from across the U.S. or even the world, or of waking up the sleepy Burke Mountain ski resort with a $160 million infusion. Without EB-5, there would be no talk of any of this, because there would be no money.
But responsibility for the expected surge of economic activity in the Northeast Kingdom, and the sense of anticipation that builds as individual projects are revealed and solidified, cannot be laid solely at EB-5’s doorstep. Because no matter how favorable the terms, money does not just happen. Investors do not just arrive, bearing briefcases full of cash; they must be courted and wooed with plans and promises. A vision must be put forth and promoted, not only to those investors, but to the general public, those who make their lives in this flinty corner of New England and who have come, in ways both large and small, to embody the very character of the region: independent and proud, determined and capable.
There must be someone to explain all of this, to make it clear, to give it shape and context. There must be someone to dispel fears of gentrification and inequality, to assure and assuage. There must be someone who is believable and experienced, who has a reputation for doing what he says he will do, when he says he will do it.
There must be Bill Stenger.
Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.