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Feeling 'Left Behind' By Montpelier, Island Pond Contemplates Economic Future

A welcome to Island Pond sign outside by a road.
Peter Hirschfeld
Island Pond lies on the western edge of Essex County, which has the lowest median income in the state according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But residents here say the local economy is on the ups, thanks to a renewed focus on tourism.

Vermonters consistently rank jobs, the economy and cost of living as the biggest issues facing the state, which is why candidates running for political office right now spend so much time talking about them.

For people living in the most rural parts of Vermont, however, economic livelihood is even harder to come by

Voters living in sparsely populated outposts, like Island Pond, say public policy initiatives dreamed up in Montpelier don’t always translate to rural communities.

“One thing that Montpelier does not understand is the word ‘rural,’” says Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, who opened the Essex House & Tavern in downtown Island Pond about two years ago. “Like, they have no idea what rural means.”

Once upon a time, Island Pond was a booming manufacturing and mill town, and an important stop on an international rail line between Portland, Maine, and Montreal.

The big employers — like furniture maker Ethan Allen — have long since closed up shop. And while a major sugaring operation called Sweet Tree moved to town in 2014, Gervais-Lamoureux has pretty much given up on a manufacturing renaissance.

“Especially in small communities, you don’t see mills and you don’t see that kind of industry anymore," she says. "And that’s why we need to change our focus."

Gervais-Lamoureux, like a lot of people in Island Pond, says that focus should be on tourism.

Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, outside the Essex House & Tavern, a restaurant she opened in downtown Island Pond.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, outside the Essex House & Tavern, a restaurant she opened in downtown Island Pond.

Gervais-Lamoureux has lived in Island Pond off and on since she was born here, which means she has a pretty good sense of its economic ebb and flow. And right now, Gervais-Lamoureux says Island Pond’s economic situation is “on the up,” in part because it’s doing a better job catering to tourists.

But she says the state could do a better job helping the downtown foster that tourism economy.

“Somebody that has an idea but doesn’t have any collateral or money to get started, they make it impossible,” Gervais-Lamoureux says.

Jeanne Gervais owns Gervais Ace Hardware, one of the biggest retailers in Island Pond. Between the supply shop up front and the lumber yard out back, you could find most of what you’d need to build a house.

For local tradespeople, it’s the only game in town.

“You know, like, these people in Montpelier have no idea how rural we are,” Gervais says. “They have no clue. No clue whatsoever.”

Gervais also says that tourism is the key to Island Pond’s economic future. But she says Montpelier’s economic development priorities aren’t necessarily tailored to suit her community’s needs.

A bike lane along Route 105, for instance, would give cyclists a reason to stay a few days, Gervais says. At the top on her wish list for elected officials is for the state to allow all-terrain vehicle trails on state land.

If the local ATV club could use state lands to build some connector routes to existing private trail networks — something it’s not permitted to do now — then Gervais says Island Pond could cash in on the riders that skip through the town on their way to northern New Hampshire.

When Gervais sees them drive by, she thinks of all the dollars lost.

“I mean one after the other in their trucks,” Gervais says. “It would be nice to keep — I don’t want them all — but some of them here to ride.”

"These people in Montpelier have no idea how rural we are. They have no clue. No clue whatsoever." — Jeanne Gervais, owner of Gervais Ace Hardware in Island Pond

Gervais says there are things Montpelier could stop doing too, like requiring school districts to merge with neighboring towns.

Island Pond is under pressure from the state to join up with Charleston. Like a lot of other residents, Gervais is convinced Island Pond might lose its local elementary or middle school if that happens.

“The towns want to keep their schools. We need to keep our schools, because if we want economic development, we need our schools,” Gervais says.

Over at the Island Pond Public Library, library director John Zuppa welcomes a group of tiny kids from a state-subsidized child care program. The children burst through the door, run past the books and head straight for a life-size dog sculpture in the children’s section of the library.

The library provides a number of programs for local kids. Zuppa, however, says he relies largely on outside funding from private institutions, since the state doesn’t offer any direct support.

“Why do we have to struggle to get money for these kids?” Zuppa says.

John Zuppa stands outside the Island Pond Library, where he serves as director.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
John Zuppa stands outside the Island Pond Public Library, where he serves as director.

Zuppa’s a newcomer by local standards — he moved here 17 years ago from Montclair, New Jersey.

“I liked it much better here — the pace, so much better. Everything was slower,” Zuppa says. “What people do here, I think, is we live much closer to the land, much closer to reality than a lot of places.”

That reality though can be harsh. Island Pond, named for the 600-acre lake it looks out over, lies on the western edge Essex County. The median household income here is about $39,000 a year, the lowest in all of Vermont, and more than $25,000 less than the median household income in Chittenden County.

This isn’t just the poorest county in Vermont — it’s also the reddest. Essex County is the only county in Vermont that voted for Trump, a fact that pains Zuppa.

But these days, Zuppa says he isn’t all that hot on politicians in general. Whether Democratic or Republican, he says they don’t seem to care all that much about places like Island Pond.

“It’s almost like you are being left behind in certain ways,” Zuppa says.

"It's almost like you are being left behind in certain ways." — John Zuppa, Island Pond Library director

And that’s a pretty common sentiment here. Bill Hawkins, who’s lived in Island Pond for the entirety of his 70 years, is walking downtown from his nearby home to grab a cup of coffee.

“Everything just seems to gradually change and dies out,” Hawkins says of businesses here. “And we’re not up to times to catch up and get something going.”

By Hawkins’ measure, Montpelier isn’t doing much to help the situation.

“We’re the Northeast Kingdom and we’re very isolated. And we’re so spread out that when they try to associate what they’re doing over there with what we’re doing, it doesn’t work good because we’re so spread out,” Hawkins says.

Island Pond, which is located in the town of Brighton, is part of a one-seat legislative district that includes six towns, two gores, a grant and an unincorporated municipality. Hawkins says he thinks communities like Island Pond might fare better if more elected officials had a better sense of the issues they’re dealing with.  

“I think they’ve really got to come in and look at the situation before they make decisions on what we have to do, OK?” Hawkins says.

Decisions, Hawkins says, like the school district consolidation law.

“It’s fine in the bigger areas where you’ve got a school every block, block and a half, two blocks," Hawkins says. "But when your schools are 14 miles apart, it doesn’t work so good."

Bill Hawkins, Island Pond in the distance behind him, has lived in this town for 70 years.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Bill Hawkins, Island Pond in the distance behind him, has lived in this town for 70 years.

Hawkins says he’d love to see good-paying manufacturing jobs return to Island Pond. He isn’t holding his breath.

“No, I think we’re going to end up just being a tourist town. I think we’re too far away from everything, and the cost of everything to transport now is too high,” Hawkins says. “I think we’ll end up just as a tourist town.”

Craig Goulet, who owns Brighton Gas in the center of Island Pond’s downtown, agrees.

“There’s no industry that wants to come in there. There’s not enough people,” Goulet says.

But becoming a thriving tourist destination, he says, isn’t such a dismal fate for a tiny town. And Goulet says Island Pond is as well suited for the job.

“It’s beautiful. I mean, you’ll see moose, you’ll see bobcats, you’ll see deer, you’ll see bear, and you’ve got the Lewis Pond that’s owned by the feds now. We got an overlook. You’ll see the most beautiful sights you could ever see. We have it here,” Goulet says. “We’re the Northeast Kingdom. We’re where everybody wants to be but can’t be.”

And Goulet says the people that come here leave plenty behind. He says last winter, he rented an apartment to a few men from New Jersey.

“The amount of money they spend here, you can’t imagine. You can’t imagine,” Goulet says. “And then if their wives come, they all go to Jay Peak, up to the water park or they go cross-country skiing at Burke.”

Goulet isn’t sure there’s much the state could do to help Island Pond. And Michael Strait, who owns a specialty food and souvenir shop across from Goulet’s gas station, isn’t counting on any.

Michael Strait, who chairs the local selectboard, behind the counter in his store, The Hearth & Home Country Store.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Michael Strait, who chairs the local selectboard, behind the counter in his store, The Hearth & Home Country Store.

Strait, who also chairs the local selectboard, says there are things Montpelier could do for Island Pond.

“If you look to New Hampshire … they have understood that tourism is where our economy is going, and they invest the money into it,” Strait says. “And here in Vermont our tourism department has a very small budget in comparison to the states around us.”

But while Strait would love to see more state-funded promotion in nearby metropolitan hubs, like Boston, he says Island Pond will likely have to go it alone.

Strait says his adopted community — he moved here about eight years ago — reminds him a lot of his hometown in Indiana, a place he says was able to transform itself from an old manufacturing hub to a thriving tourism destination.

“And I look at our community and I’m like, we can do it here too,” Strait says. “But I don’t believe that Montpelier is going to do it for us.”

Correction 10/3/2018 9:20 a.m. A previous version of this post had an error regarding Island Pond's location in Essex County. It is on the western edge, not the eastern edge — the text has been corrected.

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