Vermont's Northeast Kingdom | Change Coming to the Kingdom
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.
At Brenda’s Homestyle Cookin’, I chatted with server Tim Daley. “The things that are coming along are really good,” he told me. Daley owns a house and feels optimistic that development would bode well for home values and community vitality in general. “Our neighborhood is becoming the historic district,” he said excitedly. “It used to be a drug neighborhood, but now it’s becoming a little more gentrified.” He pointed across to the Tasting Center, which was bustling with visitors sampling artisanal wares. “The local people say, ‘It’s expensive.’ And they’re right. But what it does is bring in the people who find it not so expensive. And they look around and say, ‘What else does this town have to offer?’”
And sitting at the Vermont Pie & Pasta Company with Scott and Emily Wheeler, I listened as Scott summarized his feelings regarding the impending transformation of his hometown: “This is a place where people realize that happiness can’t be found in a wallet, and I don’t want us to lose sight of that. Tell you the truth, I feel like I’m caught between two worlds. I like the world I grew up in—hardworking, poor, but honest. I love the world I grew up in. But we do need change.”
He leaned back for a moment, as if reflecting on what all of this really means: “We’re changing for the good, and we’re changing for the bad, but history is neither good nor bad: It is what it is.” Emily rolled her eyes; she’d heard this particular speech more than once.
“One thing’s for sure,” Wheeler added. “Whether you like it or not, we’re at a turning point, and it’s more important than ever to record the stories.” He grinned hugely and picked up his sandwich.