Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ben Hewitt, a writer and small-scale farmer who lives in Stannard.
[T]o many Vermonters, the revelation that the much-ballyhooed Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative was little more than a fraudulent scheme to enrich its two primary orchestrators came as a shock. To fewer, it was hardly surprising; while the tawdry details may have been secret, the fact that Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger were allegedly fleecing investors and shamming the locals validated a pervasive sense that the developers’ claims and deeds were fantastical, if not farcical. Destructive, even. Ten thousand new jobs in the NEK? Really? The razing of an entire historic block in downtown Newport, with the associated evictions of locally owned businesses, to be reimaged as high-end housing and boutiques? Are you sure? A brand-spanking new $50 million hotel and conference center, bearing the first letter of the developers surname? Q Burke? What’s up with that?!? And now, a gubernatorial administration frantically backpedalling, to the point of requesting illegal email deletions.
Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
There is, however, an even deeper truth underlying the downfall of the NEKDI: It was wrong for the Kingdom from the outset. Quiros’ and Stenger’s vision for the region (if ever there really was such a vision; perhaps it was all about grift from the get-go) relies primarily on an extractive economic model that offers far less than it demands. In return for the supposed thousands of low-wage jobs, the communities impacted by these developments have seen landscapes and wilderness habitats permanently disfigured, their small, local businesses displaced, and their dependence on the fickle hand of tourism increase.
We must continue to work hard, temper our material expectations, and resist the hollow promises of those smooth talkers. It will not always be easy.
The residents of the Northeast Kingdom know hard, honest work. To be sure, some also know hard times. In a society that associates the word “apple” with a technology brand as readily as it does with a fruit, this is not the easiest place to make a living. For this reason, along with its affordable real estate, and a population that holds little political sway, the region is susceptible to exploitation. Just witness the destruction of the Lowell Mountains, along with the associated displacement and suffering of nearby residents both human and wild, all in the name of “green” energy. Or consider the recent acquisition of a 26,000-acre sugarbush (such a quaint term for an operation of this scale), now spider-webbed with 6,000-miles of plastic tubing, and orchestrated by a New Haven, Connecticut-based hedge fund. “This is a big corporation intruding on a traditional way of life,” Adam Parke told the Boston Globe recently. Parke taps 1,800 trees in Barton. “Growth is great. What’s not great is watching a beloved local industry hijacked by suits sitting in a boardroom somewhere.”
Here is another, even deeper truth: The people of the Northeast Kingdom already have everything we need to truly prosper, and not merely in a material way. Indeed, with its abundance of unspoiled natural places, and its population of people who understand that a vital connection to the land and to one another is a type of affluence no silk-tongued developer can ever match, the Kingdom is already a region of true prosperity. But to ensure this prosperity endures and matures, we must be willing to cultivate it, even as we stand in its defense.
Will there be hard times? Of course. Will some of us need more help than others, and will we be called upon to help one another? Yes. Must we commit to supporting our respective ventures, perhaps paying a little extra to our neighbor for a gallon of syrup, or buying our boots from the shoe seller in town, even if they’re on sale at Amazon.com? Indeed. Furthermore, we must continue to work hard, temper our material expectations, and resist the hollow promises of those smooth talkers. It will not always be easy.
But in return, we gain something far more durable than the promise (or even the reality) of low-wage jobs that are utterly dependent on economic forces beyond our control. We gain – and retain — the health and vitality of the land upon which we depend, an enduring connection to the people and places we hold dear, and the deep sense of meaning that comes of these connections. And that’s something no developer or corporation can hijack.