Vermont's Northeast Kingdom | Change Coming to the Kingdom
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.
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.