Economic ups and downs in Lamoille County

Aerial view of Stowe. Photo: Mark Vandenberg.

by Joy Choquette, Vermont Business Magazine

Businesses throughout Vermont have worked to regain their footing after a tumultuous few years. What are businesses and nonprofits in Lamoille County struggling with now? And where have they seen the most success?

The region is best known for its famous tourism locations, Stowe Mountain Resort and Smugglers’ North Resort, with its namesake mountain pass. And while it is well known and well photographed, the county boasts manufacturing and finance, higher education and entrepreneurship.

Situated in the middle of the northern part of the state, Lamoille County comprises a diverse landscape of mountains and valleys, small towns and rural locations. It spans just over 462 square miles, with an average of 56 individuals per square mile, according to the 2020 US Census. There are 966 employers in the county, employing an average of 10,894 people.

Tourism and medical services are the most prominent industries in the county, followed by higher education and a mix of B2B businesses. Some of the largest employers in the area include Stowe Mountain Resort, Copley Health Systems, Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Northern Vermont University and a mix of other for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

Photo: Smugglers' Notch is famous for being family friendly. Courtesy photo.

The average annual income for individuals living in Lamoille is $66,016, according to the 2020 Census. The average poverty rate is 8.7%.

Executive directors of area business development centers, associations and business leaders weigh in on what the pandemic has taught them.

New Developments in the County

Patrick Ripley, executive director of both the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation and the Lamoille Chamber of Commerce, said diversification of the local economy is key to the county’s growth.

Photo: Pat Ripley, executive director, Lamoille Economic Development Corporation and Lamoille Chamber of Commerce. Photo: LEDC

“While travel and tourism are currently major contributors to our local economy, a goal of expanding beyond the hospitality sector is something to strive for,” he said.

Like many areas of Vermont, Lamoille County is currently dependent on tourism dollars to thrive, Ripley noted.

“It appears we can continue to expect this influx of cash into the region for the foreseeable future,” he said. “My hope is that this trend will lead to better confidence among entrepreneurs who may be considering moving to Lamoille County and opening up shop.”

Having this strong backbone in place, Ripley said, not only benefits tourism-based businesses, but all who live and work in the county as well.

“That will hopefully lead to more workers available in all employment sectors,” he said.

While there are many complicated challenges to achieving more economic diversification in the county, Ripley stated, it’s one worth pursuing.

“We have a robust manufacturing community in Lamoille County that can also benefit from a strong local economy that supports additional workers,” he said.

Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Lamoille County Planning Commission, is bullish about the county’s economic outlook, noting its population had grown 6% between 2010 and 2020.

Photo: Tasha Wallis, executive director, Lamoille County Planning Commission. Photo: Kevin Goddard.

“Even prior to the pandemic, we were the second-fastest growing county, behind Chittenden,” she noted.

With the impending completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, Wallis believes there is room for even greater growth in the county.

“We feel that the recreational opportunities will provide tremendous opportunities for our community along the (rail trail) route,” Wallis said. Restaurants, hotels and downtown businesses will be easier than ever to reach via the LVRT.

New and continued investments in social service programs and organizations in the area provide further proof that the county is well-positioned for future growth. One example is Jenna’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that supports individuals seeking to recover from drug addiction. Jenna’s Promise provides a community venue, workforce development classes, funds for recovery residences and a recovery house. A coffee roaster and a café offer reliable employment to those in recovery.

The construction of affordable housing also continues apace in the county. The Lamoille Valley Housing Partnership opened River Bend Apartments, a mixture of 14 income-eligible apartments and six apartments for households facing homelessness, in 2022. A second development by the housing partnership, Village Center Apartments, is scheduled to open later this year. It will include 24 income-eligible apartments.

In Jeffersonville, Ben Waterman, manager of the recently formed property development company Lamoille Build, has plans to develop the currently dilapidated and contaminated Jeffersonville Granary site.

“We plan to revitalize the commercial property and renew its agricultural legacy by creating a vibrant retail and value-added processing hub for at least four local food businesses,” Waterman said.

One anchor tenant will operate a bakery/café, he noted, including milling grains from local farm businesses. Waterman Orchards, of which Waterman is the owner/operator, will occupy a small portion of the new granary as well.

The project supports an existing eatery, the Burger Barn. Other site improvements include the conversion of 2,600 square feet of dilapidated portions of the building to public greenspace, the creation of a new 300-foot public access walking path, parking improvements for 46 total spaces, stormwater infrastructure and dedicated public outdoor gathering space, Waterman said.

“Building renovations include creation of a new, open-air, 700-square-foot, three-season pavilion façade as a retail front, renovations of 6,000 square feet of retail and food processing space and a major roof energy efficiency upgrade and replacement,” he said.

In addition, there are plans to upgrade to 3-phase power, complete a commercial kitchen installation and provide handicap access and restrooms. All will be built to exceed Vermont Commercial Building Energy Standards.

“We are exploring opportunities to install solar on the roof and heat pumps, moving the building more toward net zero status,” Waterman said. “The whole property will be altogether transformed, making it considerably more economically viable, welcoming, safe and enjoyable for the surrounding community.”

Challenges in Lamoille County

Still, challenges remain. Even more affordable housing is needed in the region, and smaller communities like Wolcott and North Hyde Park require improved infrastructure.

“This has limited growth in some of our communities,” Wallis said.

Transportation, too, continues to be an ongoing challenge.

“We have limited public transportation and no interstate,” Wallis said.

Stowe, which continues to grow, faces its own transportation challenges. It struggles with traffic jams, especially during ski season. A traffic study was recently approved by the town and will be conducted for one year to determine how to improve the situation. The study, estimated to cost $80,000, will be conducted by the South Burlington-based engineering and consulting firm Stantec.

Ripley noted that like much of the state, Lamoille County is hampered by both housing and worker shortages.

“These two factors, among others, are tied together. While we have strong numbers showing that the pandemic has not limited interest from travelers to our region and that those travelers are still willing to spend, businesses are unfortunately unable to maximize this influx of dollars due to an inability to adequately staff their businesses,” Ripley said.

He referred to this as a “complicated issue” with many causes.

“First and foremost, a lack of affordable worker housing is likely to blame, but there are other contributing factors, such as access to affordable child care and transportation,” Ripley said. “If we can tackle these challenges and get workers in the jobs that are available, good things will happen, not just for businesses but for all Lamoille County residents.”

Carrie Simmons, executive director of Stowe Area Association, agreed. “Workforce development and housing, along with transportation, continue to be challenges that impact our region as well as others around the state,” Simmons said.

Photo: Carrie Simmons, executive director of Stowe Area Association. Photo: SAA

Businesses are also feeling the effects of inflation.

“Inflationary costs in the past 12 to 18 months are putting pressure on our business,” explained Steve Clokey, vice president of marketing at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. “In many cases, it becomes difficult to pass on the increases to the consumer, so we end up losing margins. Payroll expense has also taken a drastic increase in the past year due to staffing needs and what still appears to be a shortage of workers.

“Smugglers’ Notch has been collaborating with international student workforce agencies to fill entry-level positions for lift operations, food and beverage, and other needed positions to bring us to 100 percent of our positions,” Clokey added.

More state investment in infrastructure is key to boosting the region’s economic prospects, Clokey said.

“Quality road systems and infrastructure improvements can benefit directly from any increases in tourism,” he said.

Recovering From COVID-19

Like many areas dependent on tourism dollars, area businesses wondered what the post-pandemic outlook would be. Would visitors return?

“With the pandemic winding down, we are glad to see increased and steady tourist dollars coming to Lamoille County,” said Ripley. “Whatever concerns there may have been about post-pandemic travel lulls were alleviated as travelers quickly returned to Lamoille County as pandemic restrictions eased,” he noted.

Simmons noted that Stowe is also bouncing back, and then some. The area had its strongest fall on record in 2022.

“September occupancy was 57% — similar to pre-pandemic levels,” Simmons said. “And October saw the single highest occupancy levels of any month, with an average occupancy rate of 78.5% — a nearly 20% increase from 2019.”

Summer tourism in Stowe was also strong. “It was the second-best performing summer in the last 10 years,” Simmons said.

Smugglers' Notch. Photo courtesy Vermont State Parks.

The shoulder seasons, too, are experiencing an uptick in visitors. Simmons noted that the normally quiet months of April, May and November all showed higher-than-expected occupancy rates. April rates were up 4.5%, May rates increased 12.8% and November showed a 6.8% increase.

Looking ahead, Ripley said the county’s businesses can be confident that their marketing and service efforts will be rewarded by travelers looking to spend both time and money in the Green Mountain State.

“My hope is that confidence will help kickstart additional economic development in the region and beyond,” Ripley stated. “Best-case scenario is that economic development is not just limited to hospitality and other tourism-related businesses.”

Lamoille County is vibrant and full of potential and possibilities. Though it, like the rest of the state, faces challenges, the area offers a diverse range of activities — from world-class ski resorts to opportunities for cross-country skiing, hiking, biking and more.

Additionally, the healthy manufacturing industry, higher education and medical facilities continue to be a boon to the economy and offer continued growth to the county.

Joy Choquette is a freelance writer from northern Vermont.