Commentary: The Northeast Kingdom Growth Surge (July, 2013)

by John McClaughry

John McClaughry

“Jay Peak developer Bill Stenger has a sweeping plan for prosperity in the Northeast Kingdom, fueled by investments by foreigners seeking EB-5 residence permits.”

On June 15 some 120 people from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom came together for a session at Lake Region High School on “building action to advance the health and prosperity of NEK communities while maintaining their character and protecting the working landscape that surrounds them.” The event was cosponsored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development and the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

Long a lagging corner of Vermont economically, the three-county Kingdom (so labeled by Gov. George Aiken) seems improbably poised for an economic boom. Unlike the Klondike (gold, 1898) or North Dakota (oil, 2010), the coming boom is made possible by something far better than natural resources: free money.

The source of the Kingdom’s free money avalanche is, happily, not the U.S. taxpayer. It is the EB-5 immigration visa program. To put it bluntly, the U.S. government sells to well-heeled foreigners the right to legally emigrate with their families into America, in return for an equity investment of $500,000 (and up) in a government-approved development project.

The emigrants are not required to play any active part in managing their investment. In fact, many of the emigrants will never actually set foot in the projects in which they are part owners. What is important is that their checks clear, after which they can live anywhere in the U.S. that suits their fancy.

So far there are 234 EB-5 developments under way. The Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative has invariably been ranked among the top three or four such investment opportunities. That is largely due to the imagination, managerial and political skills of Bill Stenger, the CEO of Jay Peak Resort.

Stenger, who was the keynote speaker for the Lake Region conference, has been successful in refashioning and marketing Jay Peak as a four season destination. He has already built a well-patronized water park and has another $170 million in ski area improvements under way.

That’s just the beginning. With as much as $500 million becoming available through the EB-5 program, the Stenger-led initiative has multiplied. It now includes an expansion of Burke Mountain ski area ($108 million, 1500-room hotel), a South Korean pharmaceutical facility plus a German window manufacturing plant ($104 million), a marina and conference center on Lake Memphremagog ($100 million), and a downtown business building, all in Newport; and improvements and a training facility at the regional airport in Coventry ($20 million).

Throughout the emergence of this project Stenger has worked closely with NVDA, the state, and the affected towns, to make sure that they can accommodate the resulting growth. He has enjoyed the backing of Sen. Patrick Leahy, who as Judiciary Committee chairman has become the Godfather of the EB-5 program, and other political leaders.

Can this initiative be replicated elsewhere in Vermont? Possibly so, but there are some key facts that need to be recognized.

The first is that “free money” – provided by patient equity investors – makes debt-free projects possible. Stenger readily admits that no matter how dazzling a plan he might put together, it could never be conventionally financed through borrowing.

The second is that the EB-5 investors, unlike ordinary venture capitalists, are not primarily looking for return on investment. What they are looking for is hassle-free legal residence in the U.S., a more attractive option than remaining in their home countries. They are willing and able to gamble $500,000 on an investment, because even if it goes belly up they will have achieved their main objective.

Third, even though the investors’ primary objective is legal residence, not financial returns, they will select the best managed and most politically favored initiatives among the 234 available.

Fourth, any project of this sort requires a multi-talented organizer and promoter, who can put all the pieces together – business, finance, marketing, regulation, and personal and political credibility. Bill Stengers are hard to find.

Fifth, government regulation is unavoidable, but it must be reasonable, clear, fair, swift, cooperative, and pro-growth.

Finally, the support and enthusiasm of the local population is essential to build the momentum and excitement that makes great endeavors imaginable, and doable.

— John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute 


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom LIttle July 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Good article. I posted a link to it on Gary North’s site.


Werner Heidemann August 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Dear John, Though I agree with the basic premises of your article, I have thought a lot about possible downsides of pouring the better part of a billion $$ into a relatively undeveloped, rural area, with a population of less then 70,000. Your conclusion that the EB-5 investors have no interest in financial gains and are doing this simply for the right to become legal immigrants may be a bit optimistic. More importantly, what kind of jobs will be created? The fact is that all the major ski and recreation areas, in Vermont, including Mr. Stenger’s operations, use imported low cost labor for the service jobs that are usually needed in the tourist businesses. Creating those kinds of jobs for the permanent residents of the Kingdom may be counter productive. Both Jay Peak and Burke Mountain are looking for support to create housing for low-income workers since they know that the wages their employees will be making are insufficient to allow them to buy homes in the open market. This type of housing is being built with public money made available to the various housing agencies in Vermont.
Furthermore, it will lead to an influx of people into the area, to perform both the temporary jobs associated with construction projects and the permanent service jobs. So who will pay for schools and other infrastructure needs? People in low income housing are not exactly “tax payers”. In Vermont they even get rebates as you know very well.
My point is that the enthusiasm for Mr. Stenger’s visions needs to be tempered with more thought than simply marveling about “free money”. As we all know, if it sounds too good to be true, it isn’t.

Werner Heidemann


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