Legislators tour through Jay and Newport

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Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport.  Photo by Joseph Gresser
Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 2-6-13

NEWPORT — A passel of state representatives on a bus tour of the Northeast Kingdom heard firsthand about the issues that will have to be addressed to help the area adjust to $500-million-worth of planned development.  One problem the area won’t have to address is an influx of 10,000 new jobs.

Bill Stenger, co-owner of Jay Peak Resort and one of the main forces behind the new investment, told the legislators that although there will be 10,000 jobs created in response to the investment, the total of direct jobs in Orleans County will be between 1,500 and 2,000.

The rest of the 10,000 figure will be a consequence of the economic activity created by the new business, and will ripple through the state and out into New England, Mr. Stenger explained.

He was the first witness to testify before a combined meeting of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee, supplemented by one or two members of the House Education Committee.

The legislators arrived for lunch at the North Country Career Center after taking a tour of Jay Peak and hearing the plans for economic development in the Northeast Kingdom proposed by Mr. Stenger and his partners.  They were accompanied on their journey by a group of high-ranking officials from the state agencies of Commerce and Community Development, and Transportation.

When they got to the Career Center the delegation found a crowd of around 90 people, including educators, local officials, business owners and interested citizens had already assembled.

Representative Bill Botzow of Pownal, chairman of the commerce committee, opened the meeting and gave Representative Mike Marcotte of Coventry, his vice-chairman, an opportunity to say a few words.

“I want to thank the legislators for coming up here.  We’re really proud of what we have here,” Representative Marcotte said.

He said of the work that must be done in connection with planned development, “they’re great challenges to have, but they’re challenges we have to meet.”

Mr. Stenger, who was the first witness, told the representatives that it was the “quality and character of the community” that inspired his plans.  Capital, he said, was the key to development, and the federal EB-5 visa program, which allows foreigners to get residency status in the U.S. in exchange for a job-creating investment, has provided an ideal source of capital.

He said the program has allowed Jay Peak to realize good ideas without the necessity of having a mortgage.

When the program got to the point where it needed to be renewed by Congress, Mr. Stenger said, he sat down with Senator Patrick Leahy, who was one of those behind the law, and Governor Peter Shumlin to think of what might be done if the law was extended.

They decided that it would make sense to bring in good new businesses and give them the opportunity to grow in the Northeast Kingdom.

When the bill reauthorizing the program was signed in September it opened a three-year window, Mr. Stenger said.

In those three years two new business, AnC Bio and Menck Windows, will have to be up and running.  Other ideas, such as a hotel and convention center in Newport and a redeveloped block in the city, will have to be substantially complete, he said.

He said that he and his partners have been working closely with educators around the area to make sure that people have the skills needed when it comes time to hire workers.

The issues that will need to be addressed as the current plans come to fruition include transportation, health care, housing, and education and training.

“All those elements are represented in this room,” Mr. Stenger said of those seated behind him.

“Keep our eye on us, because it’s been a long time since this part of Vermont has been a leader.  We’re going to do great work,” he concluded.

Before leaving the witness table Mr. Stenger, smiling broadly, said he was glad that whoever put together a list of projects for the Agency of Transportation included rebuilding Route 242, the road that serves Jay Peak.  “It made my day.”

Mr. Stenger was followed by superintendents Robert Kern of the North Country Supervisory Union, Chris Masson of the Essex North Supervisory Union, and Stephen Urgenson of the Orleans Central Supervisory Union.

Mr. Kern said that many of the schools in the area are old and need work if they are to accommodate an increased population of students.  He asked the legislators to consider providing help for school renovation, noting that Morgan has repeatedly voted down bonds because its voters feel they cannot pay for renovations on their own.

He also suggested that the state needs to provide demographic information to allow schools to make informed decisions about needs they will have to meet quickly.

Mr. Kern said he has no way of knowing how many new workers will be arriving or how many children they will bring with them.

Mr. Masson pleaded for consideration of spreading the development into the Canaan area.  The number of jobs in the community has dropped precipitously since Ethan Allen moved much of its production to its Orleans plant, he said.

Mr. Urgenson asked for a better communications infrastructure in the Northeast Kingdom.  Faster communications and better cell phone coverage will result in greater creativity, he argued.

Representing higher education, Penne Ciaraldi of Community College of Vermont, Ann Nygard of Lyndon State College, and Cindy Robillard of the Department of Labor outlined their efforts to create a partnership to develop job training programs in the Northeast Kingdom.

Ms. Nygard said educators have to build a “cradle to career pathway” for students.

Eileen Illuzzi, interim director of the Career Center, told how her school has worked to anticipate career opportunities.  She said the career center established its hospitality program three years earlier after a visit to Jay Peak.

“Hospitality is not a career choice, we need to make it a destination career,” she said.

She said the career center is “all about options.”  Even students who decide not to complete a two-year career program may have gained something.

Ms. Illuzzi told the story of a student who hoped to go to medical school.  When she fainted at the sight of blood during a visit to an operating room, it gave her a chance to reconsider her path, Ms. Illuzzi said.

The Menck Window company, a German firm, may want to consider working with the career center to create an apprenticeship program, Ms. Illuzzi said, something that accords with their national style.

Patricia Sears of the Newport City Renaissance Corporation gave a ringing endorsement of the city.

“This is Newport’s time, this is Vermont’s time, this is our time,” she declared.

She talked about opportunities that can be created by a planned foreign trade zone, which if approved by the federal government would greatly expand the possibilities of international trade in the area.

“We’re all on the path to awesome,” Ms. Sears announced.

Doug Morton of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association said his organization has conducted a number of studies of transportation needs in Orleans and Caledonia counties.  The studies could use revision, he acknowledged, but the basic information is still sound.

After the scheduled testimony, Mr. Botzow asked if any individuals wished to offer their opinions.  Nick Ecker-Racz of Glover stepped forward to tell the legislators that he thinks that an improved public transportation system ought to be part of their thinking.  He also warned against programs that involved excess regulation.

Finally Mr. Ecker-Racz cautioned the representatives that increased wealth in the community will inevitably result in an influx of drugs, including cocaine and heroin.  Programs should be put in place beginning in elementary school to guard against the problem.

Eleanor Leger of Charleston said she thinks that good local businesses will thrive in the new environment.  She expressed excitement about the proposed free trade zone, which she said could aid her business, Eden Ice Cider, which gets many of its bottling supplies from South America.

Reed Ogden of Barton warned against too eager acceptance of a Walmart scheduled for construction in Derby.  Studies, he said, show that every Walmart employee costs taxpayers $1,000 in support services due to the company’s low wages and benefits.  He acknowledged that the data behind that study was eight years old.

Mr. Ogden pointed to a community-sponsored for-profit store established in Saranac Lake, New York, as an example of an alternative way for people to buy the goods they need at a price they can afford.

Finally, Newport Mayor Paul Monette told the legislators that his city welcomes all the development.  He said that transportation was the only problem he could see.

He said that a bottleneck at the bottom of Main Street could be eliminated by building a roundabout.  Or a new bridge, which he suggested might have to go through the spot where Representative Marcotte’s store now stands, could serve as a bypass for traffic.

In concluding the meeting Mr. Botzow offered a kind of benediction.

“I think the future is bright,” he said.  “I hope in five, ten or 20 years we look back and say ‘we did it right.’”

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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