Locals divided over Burke Mountain expansion plans

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(Host) As foliage fades and snow looms, resort operators throughout Vermont are gearing up for a new recreational season.

In the Northeast Kingdom, locals are divided about the region’s largest ever plan for a ski resort that both supporters and detractors agree will bring big changes to a tiny community.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports

(Albright) On its website, the Burke Chamber of Commerce paints a pretty picture, calling the Northeast Kingdom "a sprinkling of rural villages set among a sparsely populated landscape." It’s an accurate description-for now-even on a winter day at the popular Burke Mountain ski resort, or a summer day on the 100 miles of internationally vaunted mountain bike trails.

But over the next five years, the Florida based Ginn company hopes to build over 200 houses and 1,000 condominiums on that mountain, flanked by an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, retail shops, and at least one new restaurant. That could nearly triple the population of East Burke, and locals are divided about whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

(Sound from deli)

(Albright) At Bailey’s and Burke, a popular deli and general store frequented by hikers, skiers, and bikers, Matt Natal and his parents wait for their sandwiches to arrive. Natal majors in ski resort management at nearby Lyndon State College, and he thinks Burke Mountain needs this economic shot in the arm to stay competitive with other four season resorts where people can play, sleep, and eat, rather than shuttle back and forth to distant hotels.

(Natal) "I think it will be good for the community. I know a lot of people don’t want it, but you know, it will draw more jobs and I think they are doing the right thing by building the infrastructure first at the bottom, because without that, to me, it would fail again."

(Albright) Burke Mountain has had its share of boom and bust cycles. And at a recent informational meeting, Ginn’s Vermont-based vice president for development, Tim McGuire, acknowledged the recent downturn in the real estate market is causing delays in the project schedule. But he says shrinking the project, as some of its neighbors are asking, would not be financially feasible:

(McGuire) "We’ve got to build a new sewer plant. We’ve got to build a new water plant. We’ve got to upgrade all the electrical lines. We’ve got to upgrade many of the existing town roadways. And all that’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars to do that work. So in order to pay for all that work that’s going to be needed if we just put one house in, you’ve got to increase the number of units you have to disperse all those costs that are required for the infrastructure."

(Albright) Ginn had no trouble finding sellers for the roughly 1,800 acres it needs for this project, but it has sparked plenty of controversy among residents who fear they will have to battle traffic congestion, environmental impacts, and a threat to their slow-paced, small-town way of life. Joan Harlow, who no longer skis but likes to hike the mountain, thinks Burke is squandering its best tourism asset-pristine nature.

(Harlow) "This is advertised and promoted, and our brand, etc., is the most remote and rural part of Vermont, which is the most rural state around. We are getting less so every day, and this will make it a lot less so. So I wish it hadn’t happened but I know it has some positive job impact.”

(Albright) But other critics note that many developers import their labor from other states and countries. And if they are brought in, some wonder, where will they live, in a town with almost no rental property? Ginn’s McGuire says that decision has yet to be made, because it’s not even clear yet how many of the units on the drawing board will be sold and built.

(Sound from deli)

(Albright) That uncertainty is keeping tongues wagging back at Bailey’s and Burke, where some worry that the development will succeed, and still others worry that it will fail. Sandwich maker David Lassen, who also works on the mountain during ski season, says he’s hoping for success, but figures the town will cope, either way.

(Lassen) "Failure isn’t a big surprise to us. Locals will still find a way to get up that hill and get back down."

(Albright) Meanwhile, Lassen says, Ginn is already boosting the local economy. A recent one-day music festival drew over 2,000 fans from all over New England, who each paid $30 at the door.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.

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