Minimum wage hike will have ripple effect

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min wage webcopyright the Chronicle June 11, 2014

by Joseph Gresser

Local employers say a rise in pay for those at the bottom of the ladder is sure to increase salaries for those on the higher rungs.

That will be good news for many workers, they say, but could come at the cost of increased prices for goods and services.

Vermont’s minimum wage will rise on New Year’s Day 2015 and on each January 1 until 2018. The Vermont Legislature voted to increase it from the present level of $8.73 an hour to $10.50 in four annual jumps.

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In Island Pond: Quebec maple firm seeks syrup factory

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IP maple web

The REM building in Island Pond. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre

ISLAND POND — A Quebec maple company may be setting up shop in an empty factory here that failed to gain traction as a woodworking facility and create jobs after the Ethan Allen plant shut down in 2000.

The empty factory, known as the REM building on Meadow Street and owned by the town, could have a tenant as early as the middle of the month, according to Brighton Administrative Assistant Joel Cope.

A representative from Bernards Maple of Saint-Victor, Quebec, talked to Brighton’s selectmen late last month, and on Tuesday confirmed that the company is interested in leasing the building and more.

“It’s not a building we’re looking at, it’s an industry,” said Jacques Letourneau, who is negotiating with the town on behalf of the company.

Mr. Letourneau, who spoke guardedly during a brief telephone interview, said negotiations over leasing the building with an option to buy are still at a very preliminary stage, and he preferred “not to divulge anything until everything is in place.”

According to the minutes of the August 27 selectman’s meeting, the company would like to move in by September 16 and have environmental permits in place by the end of October.

“We’re happy to help them with that and move through the process,” said Mr. Cope, speaking in an interview last Thursday.

Still uncertain is what the deal would mean in terms of jobs.  Best estimates suggest that only a few jobs would be created at the outset, with as many as 30 to 40 to “maintain the operation” and three or four permanent jobs at the plant.  Yet the potential has the power to excite town officials.

“We think it’s a very exciting opportunity and is exactly what this community needs,” said Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, chairman of the Brighton selectmen.

She said the company is considering a two-phase development over four to five years, “and that’s where the jobs will come from.”

The deal offered by the town last week would be to lease the factory for $15,000 — $1 per square foot — with the annual lease payment going toward a $250,000 purchase price.

Tentatively, the company plans to make maple syrup in the building with sap trucked in from maple bushes in the area that it seeks to lease.  To that end, it has already begun talks with Plum Creek, the large timber company that owns more than 86,000 acres in northern Essex County.

Mr. Cope said the company would like to collect sap from roughly 100,000 taps, and expand up to one million.

“If they can find the land and the trees,” he added.

Mr. Letourneau said the company knows the trees are there, having done its research before approaching the town.  Realtor Mick Conley of Derby, who is serving as the company’s agent in Vermont, said Essex County has the third highest number of maple trees in the state.

Mark Doty, a public affairs agent with Plum Creek, would only confirm Tuesday that the Canadian company has expressed an interest.  “It’s still very, very preliminary,” he said.  “Nothing to report.”

The town put the REM building on the market about a year ago, according to Mr. Cope.  It derives its name from the previous owner, Robert E. Miller of South Burlington, who gave the building to the town after its previous tenants — the Island Pond Woodworkers, an employee-owned woodworking factory — failed to make a go of it.  Mr. Cope estimated the town has owned the building since 2010.

Located in Saint-Victor, about an hour south of Quebec City and 125 miles north of Island Pond, Bernards Maple is a fifth-generation-owned company that “has been making maple syrup for over 200 years,” said Mr. Letourneau.

As a company it is involved in every aspect of the maple industry, from tapping the trees to distributing the final product.

“We’re about as close to the consumer as you can get without putting it in the refrigerator,” he said.

The company plans to start off slow and expand.  It wants assurances from the town that it will be able to put on a 5,000-square-foot addition to the building without running into any regulatory delays.

Located in a light industrial zone, the building already has an Act 250 permit.  On Tuesday Steve Paterson, who heads the regional planning agency, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), said his group is looking at what additional permits may be required.

According to the minutes of the selectmen’s meeting last month, the company could be running as many as ten big trucks a day into Meadow Street at certain times of the year.  The REM building appears to be well situated to overcome any permitting obstacles.

“None seem to be insurmountable to me,” said Mr. Cope.

If the company comes to town, one change that will occur quickly is that the building will change its name to the Island Pond Maple Factory.

Mr. Letourneau said Tuesday that, as an old family company in Quebec, Bernards Maple wants the community to be involved.  He told selectmen that the company wants to make sure that the residents of Meadow Street are not disturbed by the heightened traffic on their street.  And on Tuesday, he spoke of the need for community support for the project.

Presumably, that support will grow as jobs become available.  But as Ms. Gervais-Lamoureux noted, the potential for jobs will increase only if the factory is occupied.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Stenger outlines plans worth $600-million

Bill Stenger. left, and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy

copyright the Chronicle 10-3-2012

by Joseph Gresser

JAY — A $600-million investment plan set out by the owners of Jay Peak Resort Thursday could change the face of the Northeast Kingdom over the next three years.  In the process it could create ten thousand new jobs.

That was the message Bill Stenger, co-owner and president of the resort, delivered in a pair of press conferences, one held at Jay Peak, the other at the Gateway Center on Newport’s waterfront.

Sharing the stage with Mr. Stenger were U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Congressman Peter Welch and Governor Peter Shumlin.

Most of Mr. Stenger’s plans focused on Newport.  They included construction of a new hotel and conference center on the site of the present Waterfront Plaza, the replacement of the Spates block with a five-story commercial and residential building, and construction of a 75,000-square-foot research building for AnC Bio, a bio medical research company.

any of the major players in Vermont politics mingle before the press conference announcing Jay Peak’s new investments. Developer Tony Pomerleau, seated at left, talks with Governor Peter Shumlin. Seated next to Mr. Pomerleau is his niece, Marcelle Leahy, who is speaking with her husband, Senator Patrick Leahy. Standing behind Senator Leahy is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Jay Peak co-owner and president, Bill Stenger, waits at the podium at the far right to begin his presentation. Photos by Joseph Gresser

Mr. Stenger also announced that a German window manufacturer will move to Newport and set up shop in a portion of the old Bogner Building.

The Newport State Airport in Coventry will also get a makeover as Mr. Stenger and his business partner, Ariel Quiros, take over the operation of the field.  They will continue to work with Dan Lathrop of Lakeview Aviation, the current operator of the airport, and will add several hangers, a new terminal building and bonded warehouses.

Mr. Stenger did not completely ignore his skiing properties.  At Jay Peak plans call for an expansion on the Stateside of the mountain where a hotel will be added.  An entirely new area is to be developed in the West Bowl, where a second new hotel is planned.

Mr. Quiros and Mr. Stenger bought the Burke Mountain ski area recently and announced a $102-million project that will include four new ski lodges there.

Ninety percent of the projects’ costs will be funded by money raised from the EB-5 visa program, which grants Green Cards to foreign citizens who invest $500,000 in an approved project that creates at least ten permanent jobs.  The new jobs can be created directly by the projects or indirectly as a result of increased economic activity spurred by the new businesses.

The expected total of over $500-million in EB-5 funds must result in more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs before all Green Cards are issued by the federal government.

The EB-5 program, which has financed most of the $250-million in improvements made at Jay Peak over the past five years, was slated to expire this month.   Congress recently passed a bill reauthorizing the program for another three years, which President Barack Obama signed into law Friday, September 28.

Mr. Stenger gave much of the credit for the three-year extension of the visa program to Senator Leahy.  Unless the EB-5 program gets a further extension, the projects outlined by Mr. Stenger will have to be completed by 2015.

In his remarks Senator Leahy said he already has his staff working on a bill that would make the visa program a permanent part of U.S. law.

The backgrounds of those who seek to participate in the EB-5 program are investigated by federal immigration officials, as is the source of the funds to be invested.  Federal officials also must certify that the expected jobs have been created before a participant is given final resident status and a path to U.S. citizenship.

Mr. Stenger began his explanation of his investment plans by talking about the work that has been done at Jay Peak Resort over the past five years.  He said construction of two new hotels, a golf course and clubhouse, an indoor ice rink, and water park has resulted in a five-fold increase in Jay Peak’s payroll.

At present the ski area employs 1,200 people, Mr. Stenger said.

He said that Jay Peak has completed 75 percent of its expansion plans.  He said the resort plans to spend $170-million between 2013 and 2015 to build 100 homes, new lifts, an 84-unit hotel and a medical center on the Stateside portion of the ski area.

Mr. Stenger said Jay will build new lifts and trails as well as a new hotel in the West Bowl area of Jay Peak.

Moving east, Mr. Stenger outlined plans that would radically reshape the city of Newport.  Along with Mr. Quiros, Mr. Stenger plans to buy the block on the south side of Main Street between Second and Center streets from Doug and Vivian Spates.

The Spates block on Main Street in Newport occupies the space between Second and Center streets. Plans announced Thursday, September 27, at the Gateway Center call for the whole block to be torn down and replaced with a new five-story building combining retail, commercial and residential spaces.

Conceptual drawings by Black River Design show the new Renaissance Block across Main Street from the Goodrich Memorial Library. The top floors are designed to provide residents with a view of Lake Memphremagog. Drawings courtesy of Jay Peak Resort

Plans call for the Spates Block to be razed and replaced with a five-story building.  In accordance with Newport’s zoning code the ground floor would be devoted to retail space.  The second story will be devoted to office or other commercial uses, Mr. Stenger said, while the top three floors will be residential.

An architect’s rendering of the block showed a couple on the top floor of the building, enjoying a view of Lake Memphremagog from the terrace of their penthouse apartment.

The building, which will be called the Renaissance Block, is expected to cost $70-million and is slated for completion in 2014.

The following year the Newport Marina Hotel and Conference Center is scheduled to open on the site of the present Waterfront Plaza on the Causeway.  The cost of the 600-bed hotel is estimated to be $100-million.

The Newport Marina, Hotel and Conference Center, seen here in an architect’s rendering, is proposed for construction on the site of the present Waterfront Plaza.

Mr. Stenger said he is in discussions with Burlington developer Tony Pomerleau to purchase the property, which has extensive frontage on Lake Memphremagog.  Mr. Pomerleau was saluted for his contributions to the state at the press conference, which took place on the eve of his ninety-fifth birthday.

Mr. Stenger described the two projects as bookends for Newport’s Main Street, and asked his listeners to imagine a walk from the hotel up the city’s boardwalk and back down Main Street.

The other Newport developments will be concentrated at the former Bogner property, which was purchased by AnC Bio, the U.S. division of a South Korean biotechnology company.  Mr. Quiros and Mr. Stenger are owners of the U.S. division of AnC.

The biotech company will start manufacturing and distributing products from the existing 90,000-square-foot Bogner building in the spring of 2013.

Work on a 75,000-square-foot research center is to begin next fall at a total cost of $104-million.  The glass tower will essentially be a copy of the company’s research building in Seoul, South Korea.  Inside there will be clean rooms, equipment and research facilities available for lease by other companies or universities, according to William Kelly, the counselor for AnC Bio and Jay Peak.

Mr. Kelly said he expects that researchers will be drawn to the new facility because of the availability of the equipment.

The former Bogner building will have a second manufacturing tenant, this one a German manufacturer of energy-efficient windows.

Mr. Stenger said that one of the people who looked into investing in Jay’s EB-5 program turned out to be someone whose work involved scouting locations in the U.S. where foreign companies might want to locate.

He brought the Newport area to the attention of the owners of Menck Window Systems, who visited the area several times before committing to locating in Newport.

Mr. Stenger said representatives of the company, a 134-year-old family owned concern, were very impressed that Lawrence Miller, secretary of the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development, attended the meetings and was solicitous of their needs.

Bringing Menck to Newport will require a $20-million investment, he said, but will result in at least 140 full-time manufacturing jobs.

The Newport State Airport in Coventry will also see considerable investment.  The Federal Aviation Agency will extend the existing runway by 1,000 feet next year from 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet.

This, Mr. Stenger said, will make it possible for larger planes to land and take off, and change the economics of the field.

The existing  runway is to be resurfaced and a separate taxi-way will be built, Mr. Stenger said.

Plans call for the Jay Peak partners to take over operations of the airport, and build a new 10,000-square-foot terminal building, two 15,000-square-foot hangars, a 14,000-square-foot aircraft manufacturing and repair facility, and a 40,000-square-foot bonded warehouse in anticipation of the creation of a Free Trade Zone in Orleans County.

Work at the airport is expected to cost $20-million and be done between 2013 and 2014.

Mr. Stenger credited Senator Leahy with shepherding the visa program bill through the Senate, and thanked Congressman Welch for his work getting it passed by the House.  The legislation passed with overwhelming margins in both bodies.

Each member of the Congressional delegation spoke at the two press conferences, as did Governor Shumlin.  All praised Mr. Stenger and Mr. Quiros for their vision.

Senator Sanders said, “The most popular sport in America is complaining about the federal government.  What you are seeing here is a marriage and partnership between private business and federal, state and local government.”

Secretary Miller, speaking at the Gateway Center press conference, provided assurance that Mr. Stenger’s plans are likely to come to fruition.

He said that sophisticated investors from around the world have carefully examined Mr. Stenger’s plans and made half-million-dollar investments in his projects.

As to whether there are 5,000 people with the skills to take jobs in the new businesses, Mr. Miller pointed out that many people have left the state in search of work.

“We want them back.  We want them home,” Mr. Miller said.

To any who may doubt the reality of his plans, Mr. Stenger offered this assurance:  “We have the mission, we have the vision, we have a love for this community.  We will make it happen.”

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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