Community looks to unite around ‘One Burke’

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Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, leads a community meeting Tuesday at the Burke Town School. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

BURKE — Uniting east and west, as well as the mountain resort and the village below, was a common theme as residents, business owners and other community members spent Tuesday working on ways to become “One Burke.”

The Vermont Council on Rural Development is facilitating a process in the Northeast Kingdom community, population 1,753, to help achieve that goal.

“One Burke, it’s sort of the aspiration, but the challenge is getting there,” Paul Costello, the council’s executive director, told community members.

More than 80 town residents, business owners and community leaders were joined Tuesday by members of the council, as well as other state, federal and regional leaders.

They all took part in a daylong series of sessions at Burke Town School, with topics including building and improving town unity and communications, encouraging tourism and boosting economic development.

The event, known as a community visit, is just one step of the process. The community will come together again Aug. 15 to narrow the initiatives and try to come up with a plan to advance the ones that are the most pressing and supported.

“Ultimately, they’ll say, ‘These are the three things that if we did would change the game,’” Costello said of Burke community members. “Then, we’ll rally every force we can to turn that into a strategic plan to help them accomplish those things.”

Costello said Burke is the 56th town in Vermont that his organization has worked with over the years. Others included Vernon, Rutland, St. Johnsbury, Pownal and Lyndon.

Another town with a ski area, Killington, is also among those 56 communities, he said.

“In Killington,” according to Costello, “this process helped end the warfare between Killington Resort and businesses on Killington Road.”

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A sign outside the Burke Town School on Tuesday welcomes people to a series of meetings aimed at unifying the town. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

In Burke, he said, the Selectboard sent a letter to his organization that kicked off the process.

“We review places where we think we can be most useful,” Costello said. “Burke, to us, seems like a town that’s ready to pull together in a new way.”

People taking part in Tuesday’s sessions talked about how Burke is home to villages in the east and west parts of town.

East Burke was described as bursting at the seams with economic activity.

A great deal of that activity comes from adventure tourism-related businesses anchored by such entities as Kingdom Trails Association (which has 100 miles of recreational trails that draw an estimated 90,000 visitors a year), Burke ski resort (attracting an estimated 75,000 skier visits last year), and Burke Mountain Academy, a ski training school that has students from around the globe.

Many people Tuesday spoke of expanding the economic activity in East Burke to the village in West Burke. Residents said that in decades past, West Burke was the thriving part of town.

“There are many, many people who remember when West Burke was the hub,” one resident said. “They’ve seen that change. They remember things as they were and are not as welcoming of all the change that is happening in East Burke.”

Ideas to spread economic activity to the west village included expanding bike trails there from East Burke. Also, some residents said, improving water and sewer infrastructure in West Burke would make it easier to develop housing for employees working in East Burke who can’t find an affordable place there.

Other unifying options included holding more street festivals and other town events in West Burke. Also, community members described West Burke as the “gateway” and “pathway” to nearby Lake Willoughby and other bodies of water.

“Maybe it can be Kingdom Trails over here, and Kingdom Water over there,” said David Pelletier, a planning coordinator with the state Agency of Transportation. “Trying to get something rolling over there (in West Burke), I think it’s very intriguing.”

Finding out what’s going on in town is also not so easy, whether on the east or west side of the community, residents agreed.

“There’s the information center,” one person said.

“Where’s that?” another replied.

Different businesses, organizations and associations in town have online sites and Facebook pages, but the town lacks one central clearinghouse for current and accurate information, residents said.

They talked of how the Burke Area Chamber of Commerce could fill that role, but some said that organization is in transition and could use more financial resources to boost staff hours if it is to take on additional tasks.

Tim Tierney, the chamber’s longtime president, abruptly resigned in May, only days after he stepped down from his job as the executive director of Kingdom Trails Association.

Officials with other organizations in town, including the municipality itself, said they struggle with relying on mostly volunteers. The town has a three-member Selectboard and doesn’t have a town administrator.

Several people said hiring an economic development director or town manager would make sense, but others questioned whether voters would approve the expense.

The sessions Tuesday didn’t provide any definitive answers, though they did spur discussion.

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The Burke Hotel. VTDigger file photo

For example, talk touched on the 116-room Burke Mountain Hotel & Conference Center that opened in September and the often low pricing that’s below what innkeepers and owners of bed and breakfast businesses say they could afford to match.

“Let’s get stuff like this out on the table,” said Ben Doyle, community and economic development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development offices in New Hampshire and Vermont. He served as the facilitator for the session dealing with tourism where it was brought up.

“You’ve got this incredible asset in this beautiful new hotel up on the mountain,” Doyle said, “and yet you have a series of folks who have beautiful inns in the community. … What is the relationship on the price point between those — that’s a real challenge.”

The resort, which includes the hotel, is under a receivership that also includes Jay Peak ski area, due to an investor fraud scandal involving the past owner of both, Ariel Quiros. Both resorts are expected to emerge from receivership sometime after the next ski season with new owners.

Kevin Mack, Burke’s director of resort services, said that like other businesses in town, the resort is competing not only locally but in the global marketplace. The resort, the town’s top employer, has about 100 workers in the summer and roughly 300 during ski season, Mack said.

The receiver now in charge of the resort property, he said, could have decided not to open the new Burke hotel in September and instead focus only on Jay Peak ski area to the north.

“The alternative is (Burke) mountain could not be open,” he said. “There really is opportunity in front of us.”

Residents throughout the sessions Tuesday talked of the strengths and assets of the town of Burke, ranging from the many outdoor recreation opportunities, such as skiing, mountain biking and hiking, to the unique culinary and lodging establishments.

Resident cited challenges that include the “spotty” broadband and cell service in town, high property taxes, speeding motorists, and the lack of public transportation.

In capitalizing on those strengths and working to address the challenges, many residents said they need to remember what makes “Burke Burke,” and not try to turn it into a “cookie-cutter” community like others that are also home to a ski area.

Gary Holloway of the state Department of Housing and Community Development offered some advice as community members move forward with their drive to unify the town.

“I think with ‘One Burke’ you guys need to develop ‘One Voice,’ a shared voice between the entire community,” he said. “What I mean by that is, really understand what you have and communicate that to visitors.”

In addition to “out-of-the-box” initiatives — such as one resident’s suggestion to become the first town to offer “ski biking on boats” — others proposed smaller-scale, more practical items.

Those included putting in sidewalks and crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety and installing more signs to help visitors find their way around.

One person suggested one of the easiest ways to bridge the divide between the two directional sides of town would be to drop one word from the Interstate 91 Exit 23 sign.

It currently says, “East Burke.”

“Why,” that resident asked, “can’t it just say ‘Burke’?”

Alan J. Keays

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