Mountain Bikers Fuel Northeast Kingdom Economy

06/09/12 8:30AM By Charlotte Albright
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Herb Swanson for VPR
Kingdom Trails in East Burke, one of the Northeast Kingdom's unique assets.

 

It's not easy to revive a sagging economy in the middle of a long recession, especially in the Northeast Kingdom. Working capital is scarce. In some professions, skilled labor is hard to come by. But the Kingdom does have some unique assets that may hold the key to a more prosperous future.

Take, for example, Kingdom Trails.

At the base of its 110-mile mountain biking network in the quaint town of East Burke, two trim men in spandex are hosing down their mud-encrusted mountain bikes after a weekday afternoon ride. Like most cars in the parking lot, theirs has a Canadian license plate. Brian Scott says he and his friend are thrilled to be on the trails so early in the season.

"People from Montreal, through the Internet and forums and things like that, we all know that this is one of the best places in New England, and, actually, in North America, to go biking," Brian Scott says, as he cleans his bike.

After the short, nearly snowless winter that hurt many ski areas, and reduced the money snowmobilers usually spend as they zoom across trails managed  by the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, or VAST, Kingdom Trails got an early stump-jump on spring.

Bikers, including Scott, arrived on April 21 in droves. "So we come in and of course we eat at the restaurant and stay at the local hotels and things like that, so I hope we are adding to the local economy."

A day pass is $15, and a season pass is 75-modest, compared to downhill skiing. But trail riders have already dropped $100,000 into Kingdom Trail's cash register in the past month and a half. Annually, Kingdom Trails-which also lures cross country skiers in the winter-- is a powerful economic engine in this rural corner of Vermont. Just ask Kingdom Trails Executive Director, Tim Tierney.

"It's about a hundred dollars a visitor a day, conservatively, and last year with 49,000 biker visits, we figure it brings in about five million dollars to the local economy."

All the trail land is loaned to the non-profit organization by about 55 property owners, most of whom expect nothing in return except well-behaved bikers. Tierneysays that's a gift-and a rarity.

"Non-motorized recreation can make a pretty big difference in the community and have a pretty low impact, really, these people come, they enjoy, they leave, and they come back, " he says.

Tierney thinks the trails will help the owners of Jay Peak, who have just bought neighboring Burke Mountain Ski Resort, create a four-season tourist magnet. But there are concerns about congestion, and a shortage of lodging. Tierney vows those problems will be solved in a way that sets a good example of geo-tourism. Besides, he says, an occasional shortage of  bathrooms and parking spaces are good problems to have in a recession.

"Other towns want what we have and a lot of people actually ask me to give talks on "how do we do this?" he says.

In a way, Kingdom Trails is reversing the historical relationship between Canadian and American commerce in this part of Vermont. Connor Daley, the UVM junior who directs daily operations during the biking season at Kingdom Trails, has been doing some research into that.

"In the 1800's it was the railroad, timber from the area going up and going into Canadian mills," he notes.  "And then it was Prohibition in the twenties, and now we're seeing kind of a physical reversal. We're not seeing Northeast Kingdom products going up to Quebec but we're seeing Quebec coming down here, It's still the flow of money they're still investing in helping our community and I think that's an awesome untapped customer base for us."

Kingdom Trails is already tapping that base. And some would like to see more arts and entertainment complement outdoor recreation. Each summer brings more studio tours and craft fairs. Of course, adding cultural tourism to a farming and manufacturing economy takes time, and something that's always been hard to come by in the Northeast Kingdom--money.

Still, if Kingdom Trails is any guide, there's enough community spirit and volunteer labor to get things rolling.

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