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