JAY, Vt. (AP) — Vermont's top elected officials joined the owners of two ski areas and a Burlington-based developer on Thursday to announce the most ambitious series of economic development proposals in the history of northern Vermont, promising, as one official put it, to "transform the face of the Northeast Kingdom."
The Northeast Kingdom is the name often used to describe Vermont's three most northeasterly counties, Orleans, Caledonia and Essex, an area of the state historically marked by high unemployment and an inability to attract much economic activity.
That is starting to change, a process given a big boost Thursday with the announcement of big upgrades at the region's two ski resorts; a hotel conference center and two new manufacturers coming to the downtown of Newport, the region's principal city; and a longer runway and new light aircraft maintenance facility at the state airport serving the area.
Bill Stenger, president of the Jay Peak Resort and a longtime leader of economic development efforts in the region, said much of the estimated $500 million to be invested in the various projects will come from foreign investors taking advantage of a special visa program encouraging them to invest their capital in the United States. The EB-5 program was just reauthorized for three more years by Congress this month.
The EB-5 program has enabled two foreign firms, South Korean biotech firm AnC Bio, and Menck Window Systems, a German-based maker of high-end energy-efficient windows, to plan to open plants in Newport. Together with a hotel and conference center planned for the shores of Newport's Lake Memphremagog by 95-year-old Burlington developer Antonio Pomerleau, the projects are expected to revitalize a community that has seen tough times in recent decades, despite its spectacular setting on a large lake that extends into Quebec.
"We believe this undertaking will fundamentally alter the economic landscape of the Northeast Kingdom and how the international business community views this region of Vermont," Stenger said.
Stenger said neighboring Canada has had tremendous success with its own special visa program for foreign investors, and that he began pressing Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to push for a similar U.S. program in the 1990s. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote the recent legislation updating and reauthorizing the program.
"With our long history and tradition of welcoming new Americans, our country should continue to foster and strengthen our immigration through an investment programs like Australia and Canada have done," said Leahy, who attended Thursday's event.
Projects announced Thursday included:
— AnC Bio plans to have a manufacturing facility up and running in Newport by spring, with construction of a 75,000 square-foot research tower to begin in the fall. The company is working on artificial organisms "using patented hybrid bio-digital technology." Stenger said the company will invest $104 million and is expected to employ 500 full-time workers, spinning off an economic impact that will generate hundreds more jobs in the region.
— Menck Window Systems of Hamburg, Germany, plans to open a U.S. base in Newport with 140 employees by early 2014, investing $20 million.
— The Newport Marina Hotel and Conference Center, a $100 million project that Stenger said is a key to the synergy that needs to develop between Newport's Main Street, just uphill from the lake, and other new developments on the lake shore.
— An expanded runway, new hangar and light aircraft maintenance facility, bonded warehouse and free-trade zone at the Newport State Airport in neighboring Coventry.
— Snow-making upgrades and four new lodges able to accommodate 1,200 visitors at the Burke Mountain ski area, which was acquired by Stenger and his fellow Jay Peak owner, Ariel Quiros, earlier this year. Ongoing construction of new hotel and other facilities continues at Jay Peak.
One long-time state senator serving the area expressed concern that the rural region might be biting off more than it can chew in terms of providing employees and infrastructure to support the new enterprises.
Vincent Illuzzi, now a candidate for state auditor, called Thursday's announcements in Jay, Newport, Coventry and Burke "a bit overwhelming and a touch scary. It will transform the face of the Northeast Kingdom as we know it, but it's going to be a challenge."