Bill Stenger. left, and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. Photo by Joseph Gresser
copyright the Chronicle 10-3-12
Watching Bill Stenger over the past few years has been a bit like watching our grandson develop Boardwalk and Park Place in Monopoly, a game he recently took up.
The difference, of course, is that Mr. Stenger, co-owner and chief executive officer of the Jay Peak resort, is using real money.
Well, sort of real money. Here’s the difference:
People who dream up interesting ways to make money — and Mr. Stenger is clearly one of those — have to find the capital to bring their dreams to reality.
Investors are generally the source. But investors assume some of the risk of the venture. That inclines them to take a close, skeptical look at any proposal, at the likelihood that it will make them some money rather than lose them their shirts.
In the EB-5 visa program, Mr. Stenger found a route to investors whose motivations are entirely different. They are foreigners who want a Green Card that will give them the right to live and work in this country and in time, if they choose, to apply for citizenship.
The federal visa program and this area’s poor economy put Mr. Stenger in a position to offer these privileges at half a million dollars per investor. He has taken their money and put it into hotels, a golf course, an ice arena and, most surprising of all, a very substantial and, we are informed, exciting water park.
Now Mr. Stenger proposes to take a great deal more such money, more than half a billion dollars, indeed, and spread the wealth to Burke Mountain and the city of Newport.
As bystanders to this performance we can only watch with a mixture of awe and skepticism. Awe because Mr. Stenger has so far proceeded with such inventive enthusiasm to do exactly the things he promised to do with the money. And he has done them in fine style.
Our skepticism reflects the very lack of skepticism with which Mr. Stenger’s investors part with their money. If the Green Card is the true return on their investment, how much do they care if Mr. Stenger’s remarkably optimistic plans meet all the usual tests with which major capital projects are vetted?
Take the demand for new retail space in Newport, for example. Is business poor because the storefront buildings Mr. Stenger proposes to replace are in poor shape? Or does their condition reflect the problem that business is poor?
Mr. Stenger has clearly taken the position made famous by the movie Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.
Such concerns are moderated by the fact that Mr. Stenger is not playing with the money of local citizens, nor our local financial institutions. Failure would be a sad and discouraging thing to watch, but not a vortex into which we would all swirl down into economic ruin.
And there is every reason to cheer Mr. Stenger on to continued success. First among them is his effort to provide jobs that might keep our children and grandchildren in this community, and lure back those who have already left us.
Mr. Stenger’s deep involvement in local vocational education, and his service as chairman of the statewide Next Generation Commission, with the mission of developing a plan “to encourage Vermonters to live and work in Vermont,” put his dedication to this issue beyond doubt.
The catch in the EB-5 visa program is that each $500,000 investment will have to, directly or through its economic impact on the area, create ten permanent jobs. In very rough terms, the investments just announced by Mr. Stenger would have to generate 10,000 jobs. Using August’s figures, that would amount to a 37 percent increase in the jobs available in the Newport and St. Johnsbury labor market areas.
As to the concern that Mr. Stenger’s focus on tourism will turn us all into a servant class for rich visitors, we would appeal to history.
Research as casual as a study of old pictures of Newport and Barton make it clear that, in the heyday of passenger rail service and before the Great Depression, this area and its hotels catered to a great many visitors.
If natural beauty and our odd style of hospitality are among our chief assets, economic logic demands that we put them to work.
Besides, his latest plans include expansion of the local airport and some hi-tech research and manufacturing facilities.
In summary, Bill Stenger has taken, and will continue to take, great risks with other people’s money. If the best we can do is to cheer him on, then that is exactly what we should do. — C.B.