Vermont's Northeast Kingdom | Change Coming to the Kingdom
At the community forum I attended—one of a series of facilitated, open-to-all gatherings intended to provide residents with a real-time grasp of the development and its potential opportunities and consequences—chairs had been arranged in a large circle, part of the facilitator’s intent to democratize the gathering. This wasn’t supposed to be Bill Stenger’s show; it was supposed to be the people’s show. But despite this effort, and despite a strong turnout of 60 or more, and despite the fact that a dozen or so attendees stood in the back of the room, two seats remained empty: One was to the left of Stenger; the other was to his right.
Despite this separation, it quickly became clear to me that Stenger enjoyed a high level of respect and perhaps even reverence among the assembled crowd.
“You, sir, are the answer to a lot of people’s prayers,” said the pastor of a local church, when it came his turn to speak.
“Thank you for your courage and honesty,” said another man.
“If all this is only a fraction as successful as the water park at Jay, there’s going to be a gold mine in Newport,” commented a middle-aged fellow dressed in business casual. A soft chuckle ran through the crowd, and heads nodded in agreement.
Outside the tall windows of the meeting space lay the vast blue-gray expanse of Lake Memphremagog. Despite the halcyon weather, the lake was practically devoid of human activity. There were no boats in sight, no fishermen, no jet skis, no swimmers. This didn’t escape Bill Stenger’s attention. “Look at that lake,” he said, nodding toward the sun-washed water. “There’s not a boat out there. It’s nuts.” I gazed out at the water, squinting into the late light. I saw some birds—gulls, probably—circling, and I watched the lake surface shimmer under the waning sun. For a moment, the room fell quiet as everyone gazed at the lake, and I had to wonder whether they saw the same thing I did: The sun on the water looked just like gold.
One morning not long after the meeting, I stopped at Brenda’s Homestyle Cookin’ on Main Street in Newport. I took a seat on the long padded bench that lines an entire wall; through the window, I could see across the street to the recently opened Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, a showplace for the region’s artisanal food and beverage producers, where you can purchase a liter bottle of ice cider for $29 or a small wedge of blue cheese for half that much. On the television mounted on the wall across from me, Dr. Phil was helping some hapless soul navigate an abusive relationship. In one corner, an employee was stacking coolers with prepared meals; Brenda’s distributes nearly 500 of them across the community each week as part of the Meals on Wheels program. I heard someone ask what the lunch specials would be, and I heard the reply: meatloaf and rice, and hamburg in pasta.
I ordered a $4 plate of sausage gravy over biscuits and was soon joined by the restaurant’s namesake, 66-year-old Brenda Lepage. She sat across from me, wearing an apron and a pair of sanitary food-prep gloves, and spoke quietly about what she saw happening in her hometown. “It’s a little scary to me,” she admitted. “What they’re proposing is a heck of a lot different than what we’ve had.”
“What’s scary?” I asked.
She thought for a moment. “It might be too upscale for some of the locals,” she replied. “And it sounds selfish, but every time I turn around, there’s a new restaurant. In the front of my mind”—she gestured to her forehead with a gloved hand—“is how I’m going to compete with all these new businesses. Yes, there are going to be jobs. Yes, there’s going to be money. But for whom?” She sighed. “We need the jobs; I know we need the jobs. I guess what’s good for Bill Stenger will have to be good for Newport.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. The notion that Newport’s impending development—and, by extension, the various projects comprising the NEK Development Initiative—might not bring prosperity to all is perhaps the most common criticism leveled at Stenger and his ambitions. In the absence of hard data on the precise breakdown of potential jobs, there’s plentiful speculation that the majority of the employment will fail to meet livable-wage standards.
“America is littered with stories of corporations saying, ‘We’re going to be good for the town,’ and then being anything but good,” Pat Sagui told me. Sagui resides in nearby Westfield, where she provides project management and development services for small nonprofits. She’s one of the few outspoken critics of the NEK Development Initiative I came across.
In Sagui’s view, the development associated with the initiative fails on several fronts. There’s the fact that most of the development is highly energy-intensive, both in its construction and its end use. (Electricity consumption at Jay Peak is projected to increase by more than 300 percent once the development is complete.) “Unless this can be done with a zero-carbon footprint, there’s really nothing to be proud of,” she told me. And she echoes Brenda Lepage’s concern that many of the highest-paying jobs will require education and training that are beyond the reach of many area residents.
In short, Sagui sees the Northeast Kingdom Development Initiative as rooted in resource consumption and service-sector employment that traditionally hasn’t provided a livable wage, while ignoring fundamental ecological realities. “How do we make decisions about what’s good for our communities?” she asked. “First and foremost, a new development project should pass the consumption test. If development doesn’t fit the steady-state-economy model, then it’s beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Second, it should answer the question: How will this make us more resilient to climate change and to economic uncertainty beyond our community’s borders? Bill isn’t offering anything visionary here.”
Despite Sagui’s critique, the overarching mood in Newport and the region at large is one of tempered excitement and cautious optimism. At Wright’s Enterprises, I sat in the cluttered office of auctioneer Ron Wright, listening while he alternately held forth on the pending development and swatted flies with enviable accuracy. “I’m all for it if they can bring more jobs and more people into the area,” he said. He paused, and the swatter found another victim. “The biggest thing we need is more jobs and more people.” Swat.