Jay, Vermont, is not a ski town. Located just three miles from the Canadian border, this town and the surrounding Orleans County are known as the Northeast Kingdom. Despite its legendary skiing and unspoiled wilderness, the kingdom is struggling.
At the 2000 census, Jay’s population was 426. The nearby town of Montgomery had a population of 992. However, the available jobs were even fewer. Fourteen percent of the Orleans County population lives below the poverty line, and in 2008 the county unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, the highest in the state of Vermont. Many of these towns survive solely on Jay Peak resort income, and even that comes seasonally.
Skiers commute five or more hours to Jay during peak season. On a winter weekend it’s easy to spot Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Canadian license plates in the parking lot. During Christmas vacation, on powder days, and on long weekends, the area swarms with roof-racked SUVs, French-speaking Canadians, and Patagonia-wearing ski moms.
They love Jay because it’s undiscovered. They can drive a few hours, spend the night in a ghost town, and then ski some of the best powder in the East- all for less than a one-night stay in a big resort town. Loyal followers are also enchanted by the “Jay Cloud”, the resort’s explanation for piling up more snow than anywhere else in the East.
Yet Jay is about to be discovered. Blueprints of the resort’s expansion plan show features like a 60,000 square-foot water park, Golf Clubhouse, and the shiny Hotel II replacing the grassy hills at the base of the mountain. The expansions scream ‘big mountain resort,’ leading many to ask, is Jay selling their powder for profit?
In the beginning, purists who frequented Jay’s slopes were concerned. Would expansions destroy this mystical “skier’s paradise” in the Northeast Kingdom? Yet the town needed help. The mountain provided only 100 full-time, year-round jobs, and few more seasonal opportunities. So in 2005, when the EB-5 Foreign Investor Visa project made its way to Vermont, Jay Peak shareholders, and resort CEO and President Bill Stenger, took an interest.
The project allows non-Americans who invest at least $500,000 in projects in high unemployment areas to obtain green cards for themselves and their families. Over the past five years, Jay Peak’s expansions have proved useful in creating local jobs and increasing business to the resort. By the end of the project, marketing director Steve Wright predicts that up to 2,000 year-round jobs will be created at the resort and in the surrounding counties.
One huge change about which many have strong opinions is a new water park, engineered to be the largest in New England. On June 14, communications coordinator Kim Hewitt published a post on Jay’s blog entitled “Water Park Terrors.” She assured Jay Peak purists that while the water park will be more accessible than challenging Jay Peak ski runs like “The Face”, it won’t be “[a] water-park-for-wussies either.”
Environmentally friendly construction, natural light, and Vermont-inspired features add a bit of Jay-integrity to the project. “We may be employing some sort of anti-theme, said Wright. He explained that the resort plans to stray from the typical “Pirate’s Lagoon”, or “Wild West” themes, in favor of more natural décor like real rocks, trees, and plants. The plan includes a retractable roof system and enough windows to use sunlight instead of harmful fluorescents.
Wright feels that the character of the original Jay Peak will live on. “I’m able to hold our own hand to the brand-fire and call bullshit when someone makes a suggestion that doesn’t jive with who we are and the things we support.”
To some, expansions and changes may signify the death of a mountain that they know and love. Yet change doesn’t have to be negative. As long as the local characters stick around, and poutine stays on the menu, Jay Peak will stay pure, water park or not.