Vermont's Northeast Kingdom | Change Coming to the Kingdom
I first met Bill Stenger in late August, when I attended a community forum on the waterfront in downtown Newport, but his name had long been familiar to me. Indeed, Stenger’s name is familiar to just about anyone tuned into development—economic and otherwise—in the Northeast Kingdom. Living in Cabot, Vermont, I can’t claim Kingdom residency, but I’m darned close: The Northeast Kingdom comprises Essex, Orleans, and Caledonia counties, the latter of which lies only a few miles north of my family’s home. Given this proximity, and my general fondness for the region, I’ve long maintained a keen interest in “the Kingdom,” as it’s known in local parlance.
For the past 30 years or so, Stenger has been inextricably linked to Jay Peak Ski Resort. He became Jay’s general manager in 1984 (he’s now part-owner), coming to the mountain at a time when it boasted all of 48 guest beds, a primarily Québécois customer base, and a reputation as a snowbound backwater of a resort that, depending on your perspective, was either too far, too cold, or too bereft of amenities to warrant visiting. For a couple of years, Stenger was content to simply learn the ropes, but he was also quietly looking for a way to distinguish the resort from its competitors, a mandate that was particularly crucial, given Jay’s remote and rustic nature.
Stenger found his opportunity in the aftermath of a benchmark liability case, following a 1974 accident at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain in which a skier clipped a snow-covered stump on the trail’s edge, fell, and suffered shoulders-down paralysis. “All the resorts started making their trails wider and wider, because they were afraid of getting sued,” Stenger explained.
In the mid-1980s, Stenger happened upon one of his patrollers admonishing a group of skiers who’d been skiing off trail, in defiance of mountain policy. “I couldn’t forget the smile on those guys’ faces,” Stenger told me. In fact, the image of those skiers—clad in snow-crusted woolen pants, faces split by snow-crusted smiles—was so unforgettable that it wasn’t long before Jay became the first Eastern ski resort to adopt a boundary-to-boundary policy at precisely the same time the competition was cracking down on off-trail antics. The decision cemented Jay’s sterling reputation among serious skiers, securing in the process Stenger’s reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to call conventional wisdom into question.
Still, the resort’s infrastructure shortcomings persisted into the 21st century, when Stenger began courting investors through EB-5. He’d first learned of the program in 1996 (it was launched in 1990), but it wasn’t until 2006, when EB-5 was streamlined, that Stenger began to market Jay to would-be citizens with deep pockets.
Suddenly, Jay Peak was awash in money from foreign investors seeking a shortcut to the green-card avenue. Before long, Stenger had raised $330 million, enough to utterly transform the ski area. Among other amenities, a brand-new 172-room resort hotel was completed in 2011, shortly after the resort’s pièce de résistance—a glassed-in 50,000-square-foot indoor water park known as the Pump House—opened. The park, which is heated to a balmy 86 degrees year-round, features a retractable roof, a continuous-wave machine, a 65-foot 45-mph trapdoor freefall tube called La Chute, and innumerable water slides that curl and curve and dip like oversized snakes.
The Jay Peak expansion did more than transform the resort from a rugged skier’s mountain into a four-season family destination: It put Bill Stenger on the map as someone who wasn’t afraid to make bold pronouncements and then actually fulfill his promises. The audaciousness of the Jay Peak development was only compounded by the fact that most of it was implemented during 2008 and 2009, when practically every other commercial development project in the country had ground to a halt, courtesy of frozen credit markets and wary investors.
The rapid deployment of Jay Peak’s expansion, coupled with Stenger’s evident skills as both pitchman and developer, did something else: It created a backlog of willing investors. In short, there was more cash than the resort itself could absorb. “Simply from a logistical standpoint, it couldn’t all be Jay,” Stenger told me. It didn’t take him long to identify a likely sponge to absorb the undammed river of money flowing through EB-5. It didn’t take him long because, in fact, he’d lived there for the past 30 years: Newport.
The city of Newport, Vermont, sits tight to the southernmost shore of Lake Memphremagog, a 39-square-mile, 350-foot-deep lake bisected by the U.S./Canada border. The city’s Main Street parallels the shoreline, along a business district that comprises three blocks and numerous shuttered storefronts. A quarter-mile or so east of downtown, the metal latticework and storage silos of a local animal-feed mill lend an industrial feel; on the hill above Main Street, the twin stone steeples of St. Mary Star of the Sea preside. The downtown is pleasant and accessible, and, despite the abundance of darkened windows, it seems lively enough.
Still, statistics point to a city in decline. In 2011, Newport was home to 4,579 residents, which means that since 2006, the city has lost nearly 12 percent of its population. This is perhaps in no small part because Newport’s unemployment rate is persistently higher than the Vermont state average; at the time of my reporting it was a full 28 percent higher.
That wasn’t always the case. Indeed, in the early 1900s, Newport was a vibrant destination town, served by rail lines and home to a rollicking dance hall and luxury hotels. “People say this development is something new for Newport,” Scott Wheeler told me, when I met him and his daughter Emily for lunch on a hot late-summer afternoon.
Wheeler grew up in the area, and publishes Vermont’s Northland Journal, a monthly periodical he proudly described to me as “the history of the region told by the people who lived it.” He also hosts a weekly interview talk show on the local radio station, WIKE 1490AM. As such, he has evolved into the role of unofficial regional historian. It’s a role that suits him: He’s effusively friendly and possesses a seemingly encyclopedic memory for historical fact, and his enthusiasm for the region and its stories is palpable. “Now, there’s a story nobody’s written,” he excitedly told me more than once.
“Well, wait a minute,” Wheeler continued, drawing out his vowels in the manner of the regional dialect. “We had the Memphremagog Hotel, which burned in 1907. We had the International Club, which was one of the largest dance floors in the Northeast. All the big bands played there on their way between Boston and Montreal. Newport had a nice, booming downtown.” He paused for a moment, then asked rhetorically, “Does anyone even dance anymore?”
His daughter Emily piped up. “I have one friend here,” she said. “The rest of them have left.” In fact, she too was about to leave, to return to grad school at UVM. “Would you come back to the Newport area?” I asked. Emily shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a great place to raise a family, but there’s a stigma about staying here. It’s like, if you don’t get out after high school, you’ll never get out.”
Scott Wheeler looked at his daughter. “You could make a living here, but it’s tough, ain’t it, for kids.” It wasn’t a question, and he nodded, a silent answer to the question he hadn’t really asked, because of course everyone knew the answer anyway.