Jay Peak Resort president Bill Stenger greeted almost two dozen House lawmakers to his resort kingdom on Tuesday with fresh news: further expansion plans on top of the $500 million investment he’s already planned for the Northeast Kingdom.
Stenger outlined new plans to expand at his recently purchased Burke Mountain resort, including building a massive indoor mountain biking arena, a top tennis center, and an aquatic center, with an Olympic-caliber swimming pool and diving boards.
“That will be the secret to Burke’s off-season, non-winter success,” said Stenger, who acquired the Burke Mountain resort, which is located near Lyndon, last year.
Stenger, the longtime owner of 3,861-foot Jay Peak ski resort, has used development to turn a quiet northern peak into a dynamic four-season resort in the past few years. With his new plans for 3,267-foot Burke Mountain, the Kingdom’s only other ski resort, Stenger is further shaking up the economy of the remote and rural region with his plans for a twin-peaks empire.
Stenger’s prime message to lawmakers was clear and simple.
“All the things we’ve done here, and all the things we’re going to be doing in our community, if you can boil it right down to one particular thing, it’s job creation,” Stenger told lawmakers minutes after they’d arrived in a group by bus from Montpelier.
A special contingent of House lawmakers, chiefly the House Commerce and Transportation committees, toured Jay Peak with Stenger on Tuesday, held a hearing to take testimony from Northeast Kingdom residents and officials, and whizzed past future development sites. (Click here for a slideshow.)
Testimony stayed mostly positive, with support from officials and residents alike, but some uncertainty loomed over how exactly Stenger’s $500 million investment plans, slated to create 10,000 direct and indirect jobs and achieved via the federal EB-5 visa program, would pan out.
Stenger’s greatest worry is making substantial progress on projects within the next three years, before the next sunset of the federal EB-5 program. But a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy told VTDigger that Leahy is working hard to make the EB-5 visa program permanent, including making that a priority in a comprehensive immigration reform package, set for first hearings in early February.
Local officials also raised some issues that loom with extensive resort expansion, pointing out the unknown future impacts on the area’s schools, housing, and transportation, adding that the area’s workforce may lack the skills future employers will need.
“We welcome the development. We need it. But we also need to plan very carefully to make sure it’s a success,” said Dr. Robert Kern, superintendent of North Country Supervisory Union, to lawmakers and a handful of administration officials at a legislative hearing in the North Country Career Center, which offers technical and career training in the Kingdom.
“How many new residents will we have? Where will they reside? What are their ages? What level of income?” said Kern, who requested detailed projections from state officials on the impact of the seven new projects.
State officials like Lawrence Miller, who leads the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, listened intently, but didn’t themselves provide input at the hearing.
Signaling another theme, Kern also said: “Education and job readiness are essential to the success of the development and the growth we are about to experience. … We know that the demands on our schools will be greater than today.”
Three representatives from Vermont colleges and the state’s labor department discussed equipping the local workforce with skills relevant to industries like biotechnology and hospitality, part of the 1,200 new jobs Stenger projects will be created in two to four years. Few concrete plans for finding that workforce have been proposed at this point.
Ann Nygard of Lyndon State College, who’s tracking local workforce issues in a special team, said that many students in the Northeast Kingdom don’t continue education beyond high school. She said that the region has the lowest percentage of post-secondary degree attainment in Vermont, with a regional average of 21 percent versus a statewide average of 36 percent.
Bill Botzow, a Pownal Democrat and the House Commerce chair who led the busy legislative tour, told VTDigger afterwards that he doesn’t believe there’s any greater need for career training in the Northeast Kingdom, compared to other regions. Botzow said the state needs to make more of existing workforce development programs, rather than reinvent the wheel with new legislation.
Peter Peltz, vice chair of the House Education Committee, came along for the tour, partly because he’s been assigned by House Speaker Shap Smith to inventory and monitor the state’s efforts to develop its labor force. The Woodbury Democrat said that although higher education and later career development seems in good shape, he’d like more emphasis on career skills in the public school system, and an end to the stigma surrounding technical and vocational training.
While preliminary concerns about the area’s labor force were one area of concern, the state’s transportation experts also came along to gauge whether the Northeast Kingdom’s transport infrastructure could bear the added traffic from thousands of new residents, workers and visitors.
Sue Minter, the deputy secretary of the Agency of Transportation, is optimistic that the state is ready to meet any transport-related growing pains. Issues she cited on the horizon include possible public transit systems, preventing developmental sprawl, and aiding commuters, especially those in new housing developments.
While federal and private financing would play a role, Minter acknowledged that it’s an open question whether the state can easily afford new transport investment in the area.
“I think the question of what the community wants to afford and what our state wants to afford is a very relevant question with our budget overall this year,” said Minter.
“It would be wrong to say there is no problem financing all this. We have a lot of financial challenges to keep up the infrastructure we have, and this is probably going to add to those challenges,” she said.
The state needs to raise $36.5 million to prevent sending back some $40 million of matching transportation funds to the federal government. It’s also facing an annual funding gap of $250 million towards meeting basic infrastructure maintenance and repair over the next several years.
Newport City Mayor Paul Monette and resident Nicholas Ecker-Racz both suggested that the area would soon need a regional public bus system like those in Chittenden County and central Vermont.
Prior to the legislative hearing, lawmakers received a quick but thorough tour of Jay Peak Resort, entering the impressive indoor waterpark, complete with slides and rides, and an indoor ice hockey rink, before browsing the resort’s souvenir store.
Lawmakers also toured the Newport state airport, where Stenger and others plan a 1,000-foot runway expansion, along with several new buildings. Guy Rouelle, the director of aviation for the Transportation Agency, briefly showed off a Vermont Air Guard Black Hawk helicopter.
Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R/D-Newport, kept lawmakers entertained with colorful running commentary about his native Kingdom as the group visited the site of proposed developments such as a new commercial and residential “Renaissance” block in Newport and a biotech facility for South Korean company AnC Bio and German window-maker Menck Windows.
Stenger told lawmakers earlier in the day that, “We will only make this vision and dream reality, on every level, if we cooperate with one another throughout.” He added, “Keep your eye on us.”
According to Botzow, that eyewitness experience was part of the purpose behind this northbound legislative junket.
“This trip is for us to be deeply acquainted with this effort in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Botzow. “For us to understand both the landscape, plus the growth, plus the downtown.”
“And to hear from people in Newport, instead of expecting them to come to us, makes a big difference. There’s nothing like seeing it, to understand it.”
Patricia Sears, executive director of the Newport City Renaissance Corp., used her testimony to tell lawmakers what they’d gain from paying attention to the economic development of the Northeast Kingdom. Sears said the state of Vermont would learn about “smart, applicable education and workforce development,” handling transportation challenges, and sustainable, community-driven development.
“In short, the state of Vermont will get a model of how to build capacity in the state’s most rural area. Now is the time to do something,” said Sears. “We need data for planning; adjustments to our schools, career planning, and housing. So here’s the message: all hands on deck, now.”