When a ski passion leads to impressive developments
By KAREN D. LORENTZ
December 6, 2013
Bill Stenger receives an award prompting local food for thought.
Bill Stenger, the president/CEO and co-owner of Jay Peak Resort who transformed the ski area into a full-fledged year-round destination resort, was recognized for his contributions to the ski industry and Vermont when he was honored with the prestigious BEWI Award at a luncheon in Boston on Nov. 15.
In making the award presentation before some 150 members of the ski industry and media in town for the Boston Ski and Snowboard Expo, Bernie Weichsel, president BEWI Productions, stated, "Bill Stenger has set the standard in ski resort development that has enriched our sport, the economy of an entire region, and the lives of resort employees and the local communities."
As a ski industry promoter and entrepreneur who produces the Boston.com Ski & Snowboard Expo among other snowsport shows, Weichsel has a long career in the ski industry and is also a familiar face in Killington as a skier and owner of units at the Inn at Six Mountains. (He himself was honored by the New England Ski Museum last year with the museum's Spirit of Skiing award in recognition of his influence in popularizing the sport.)
Weichsel established the BEWI Award in 1985 to "recognize a ski industry leader who has made an important contribution to the betterment of the industry."
In his presentation, Weichsel stated that he has personally "witnessed the personnel benefits Bill brought to Jay … the humility of the leader … and the atmosphere of being part of a big family."
Cal Conniff, a former long-time president of the National Ski Areas Association, praised Stenger for rebuilding Jay, noting he is also "resurrecting a region known for its poverty; an area where it is hard to make a living." Citing the economic challenges facing the Northeast Kingdom, Conniff said, "Bill, you have a big heart and I want to thank you for what you're doing up there."
Parker Riehle, president of Ski Vermont, the state's trade association for Alpine and Nordic ski areas, also noted Stenger's humility, saying it is seen whether in parking cars (at the resort) or testifying in Washington. The latter was a reference to Stenger's role in getting the state designated as an EB-5 region.
Riehle characterized the Jay Peak Renaissance as a significant contribution, adding that "other neighboring communities are benefiting, not just Jay Peak, Burke, and Newport … The State of Vermont is lucky to have you," he said in extending his congratulations.
Weichsel also read a letter of congratulations from Senator Patrick Leahy, who praised Stenger for "transforming the Northeast Kingdom" through his "incredible work ethic" and the EB-5 program.
A true visionary who used innovative EB-5 financing to help accomplish Jay Peak's transformation into a four-season recreational destination, Stenger's overriding goal has been to provide year-round employment. When explaining his master plan many years ago, Stenger stressed the necessity of insulating Jay with weather-proof year-round activities that would give guests something to do in summer or anytime inclement weather struck and provide year-round jobs that would benefit the resort as well as the region in the shoulder seasons.
Since that time, Jay has built a golf course, three hotels, 250 condominiums, an indoor ice arena, and a huge indoor waterpark with retractable roof that transforms into an open air facility for fair weather use and indoor facility the rest of the year.
As a result, Jay had its best season ever last year in terms of both visits and revenues. For this current year, Jay has invested another $43 million in projects that include the Stateside Base Lodge and an adjacent 84-suite hotel and 70 mountain and golf cottages as well as The Barn event and wedding venue.
And there are similar plans to revive Burke Mountain, which he and business partner Ariel Quiros acquired in May 2012. In addition to $1 million in snowmaking upgrades last year and more electric power for operating the system and snowmaking pipe improvements this year, ground will be broken for a $15-million 116-suite Hotel Burke in the spring.
Rising to the EB-5 vision for North East Kingdom
Stenger's entrée into the ski industry came shortly after graduating from Syracuse University, a time when he caught the 'ski bug' with trips to Killington. First working in insurance sales, where he "learned to talk with clients as well as listen to them," he soon decided that he would prefer to pursue a life where his passion lay so he became the membership director of the Eastern Ski Association based in Brattleboro, Vt.
He next spent several years managing two ski areas in Pennsylvania, a time when he rose to regional and national ski industry prominence when he was named chairman of the National Ski Areas Association's Marketing Committee and later to the NSAA's board. That connected him to Jay Peak's owners, and he was hired to manage the Vermont resort in 1984.
Since then, he has worked tirelessly not only for the ski industry but also by serving on many state and regional business and tourism boards, Stenger currently serves on Gov. Shumlin's council of economic advisors. His professional achievements and awards are numerous and include NSAA's prestigious Sherman Adams Award.
What was instrumental to transforming Jay in the Northeast Kingdom, the state's most economically challenged area, was Stenger's foresight and vision to utilize EB-5 financing to secure his resort's growth.
This feat rests on Stenger's years of work and proven track record at Jay which led him to combine efforts with Senator Patrick Leahy to obtain EB-5 Regional Center status for Vermont in 1996. Today, there are 200 regional centers, but only Vermont's is state run - by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development led by Secretary Lawrence Miller.
[The federal EB-5 (Employment Benefits) program was created in 1993 to stimulate the U.S. economy through foreign investment in projects that would create jobs. The immigrant investment program offers permanent residency for the investor, a spouse and children in return for a minimum investment of $500,000, provided at least 10 jobs are created or preserved.]
Working with state and other officials, Stenger was able to acquire more than 500 EB-5 investors from 56 countries who each invested $500,000 in Jay projects. (As of a year ago, they included two hotels, the waterpark, conference center, golf course, clubhouse, ice arena, and parking deck.)
"It's been a win-win situation for all concerned," with the "creation of 2,000 jobs as a result of the equity-based investment program at a time when lending was tough to come by," Stenger noted lasted year in a press event that included stops at the new Hotel Jay Conference Center, Newport, and Burke to unveil even bigger plans for the Northeast Kingdom.
Results expand opportunities
That $250-plus million in foreign investment pumped into Jay Peak proved just the ammunition that Senators Leahy and Bernie Sanders along with Congressman Peter Welch needed to help get the EB-5 program (set to expire in 2012) extended for three years. Leahy's bill passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a 412-to-3 vote and was signed by the President.
So what started as a funding mechanism to bring about the transformation of a sleeping giant of a ski area into a true four-season resort has morphed into the largest economic opportunity ever created for Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. It has the potential to create thousands of diverse jobs, and, perhaps most importantly, the initiative has credibility, which even those who distrust government programs can clearly see.
Due to that success, in 2012 Stenger and Quiros were able to announce a $500 million "economic revitalization initiative" for the Northeast Kingdom that will create 5,000 to 10,000 direct and indirect jobs for a region that has the state's highest unemployment rates.
The EB-5 program has also benefitted other areas of Vermont, including Haystack and Sugarbush where projects are being or were made possible through this funding mechanism. (Efforts have also spread to neighboring New Hampshire where EB-5 projects are now in progress at Ragged Mt. among other places.) It is a complex process, however, that eventually requires a payback of the investment, so other ski resorts have not jumped on the bandwagon willy nilly.
The BEWI Award and accolades bestowed on Stenger indicate just how far-reaching ski-area development benefits are to the industry but also to the economy of a small state like Vermont.
Food for thought
The expansiveness of Stenger's vision and contributions are food for thought for the Rutland Region as are his comments upon receiving the award.
He noted that Foster Chandler, a former longtime Killington marketing director, coined a phrase "There is a world only Alpine skiers know." Speaking about the passion for the sport that arises from the ski product, Stenger added, "The sport is the center of our universe," and that it engenders a similar passion among staff. "I am blessed to have the staff … people who live in the communities around our mountains," he said, adding "how important our community is to our mountain and to me,' and that he is "blessed to have the opportunity to bring capital to our region."
Ending on a note of being "very humbled and honored" by the award, Stenger expressed how "wonderful it is to be with all of you today who appreciate our industry."
Ironically, both Weichsel and Stenger were influenced in their passion for skiing and the industry through their early days at Killington. Stenger has said of Pres Smith, Killington's pioneer founder, "he is one of my heroes."
Perhaps the lesson here is that when people appreciate the potential of the ski industry to benefit the greater communities in which they operate, people pull together to accomplish great things, which include not only wonderful guest experiences but also job opportunities and economic vitality.