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With Canadian Border Closed, NEK Tourist Spots See Big Drop

A sign on the road the says Kingdom Trails
Liam Elder-Connors
Kingdom Trails, a popular mountain biking area in the Northeast Kingdom, has a seen a big drop in business in part because the Canadian border is closed.

The U.S.-Canada border closure, in effect since the pandemic struck in March, means the sudden loss of thousands of Canadian tourists — and the $150 million dollars they spend in Vermont.

The border is closed to all non-essential travel until Sept. 21, and that could be extended. These restrictions have devastated tourist destinations in the Northeast Kingdom, which typically get about half their business from Canadian tourists.

The roads around East Burke are usually pretty quiet, but on a recent Friday, they seemed abnormally empty. So I decided to pull over on Route 114 when I spotted a guy on a ladder hammering new panels to the roof of a farm stand.

A man in a white t shirt and hat
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Ron Burke with his produce stand, which he usually makes $2,000 off of in the summer.

Ron Burke told me he usually sells eggs, chicken and vegetables plus jams, breads and pies.

“We also sell cooking oil that we [make] from the hemp,” he said.

Normally, Burke makes about $2,000 during the summer selling produce, but he delayed opening the stand this year because of the pandemic. It’s not just his farm stand that’s taken a hit.

Burke also has a yurt on his property that he lists on AirBnB for $48 a night. He said he couldn’t start renting until about a month ago, and with all the travel restrictions, there’s a lot of people he turns down, because they’re coming from areas with too much coronavirus activity.

“Vermonters don’t have disposal income like people from down country do,” he said. “So you don’t have that influx of that money coming into town, especially the Canadians.”

"Vermonters don't have disposal income like people from down country do. So you don't have that influx of that money coming into town, especially the Canadians." — Ron Burke, in East Burke

Burke is not the only person to notice the lack of visitors from north of the border.

Up the road from Burke’s house is Kingdom Trails, a popular mountain biking destination that boasts over a 100 miles of trails and brings in $10 million to the regional economy. It’s considered one of the best places to ride in the Northeast, and the parking lots are usually packed.

But this year, the trail network is only seeing about 30% of their normal traffic, said Kingdom Trails Communications and Program Manager Lilias Ide.

“Obviously that’s not sustainable," Ide said. “We’re only spending what we need to spend to keep our doors open to try and function, but hopefully next year will be different. We can’t say, but we’ll make it through this year.”

More from VPR: An 'Eerie' Few Months Farming Along Vermont's Border With Canada

In-state riders, like Erin Kurek and her husband Jordan Blucher, are noticing the drop in business too. They’re from Charlotte and had been staying at a nearby campsite with their sons for the past week.

“Usually we’re up here during the week, and the parking lot's full and there's a bunch of folks here getting food,” Kurek said. “It’s just eerie to be able to ride and not see anybody on the trail. But I do think a lot of it has to do with the Canadian border being closed."

Two people with their bikes
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Erin Kurek and her husband Jordan Blucher at Kingdom Trails, which has seen about a 30% drop in business.

The border has been closed for five months, though some trade and commercial travel deemed essential is still allowed. In that time, Canada has done a much better job containing the coronavirus. In mid-August, the country only had about 121,000 cases, compared to more than 5.2 million infections in the U.S..

Given the skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 in America, it seems unlikely that Canadian leaders will want to loosen thecurrent restrictions. Yves-François Blanchet, leader of Bloc Quebecois political party, said in July the border needs to remain shut.

“In the list of those who did well, you won’t find United States, they are still deep in it,” he said. “And we have to remain very careful. We are speaking about the health and lives of many people here.”

Recent polls in Canada found about 80% of residents want to keep border restrictions in place, according to the CBC.

A person cooking food
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
VPR File
Chris Grandfield and his smoker.

Back at the one of the Kingdom Trails parking lots, Chris Grandfield showed off his mini-smoker, where he can make up to eight racks of ribs. He started working here, at the food truck called Feed the Pour, this year.

“Today is one of the most beautiful days on the summer. It’s not overly hot, it’s a perfect day for biking, and I have sold three sparkling waters,” he said. “Hopefully it picks up.”

Grandfield said the truck’s sales are down about 80% compared to last year. Some days, he brings in less than $40. They shrunk their operations from seven days a week to three and went from five full time workers down to two full-time and a part-timer.

"It's not overly hot, it's a perfect day for biking and I have sold three sparkling waters. Hopefully it picks up." — Chris Grandfield, Feed The Pour food truck

About 50 miles northwest at Jay Peak ski resort, it’s a similar story.

General Manager Steve Wright says the resort is 85% to 90% off it’s normal numbers for hotel rentals, most of the weddings and all of the conferences have been canceled, and golf, a popular summertime activity, is way down.

“With the border closed on one side and then on the U.S. side the cross-state travel having those limitations in place, our audience to fish from doesn’t have that many fish left in it,” Wright said.

The resort will be able to keep operating, according to Wright. Jay Peak, which is still in federal receivership after its former owners were accused of defrauding investors, just received approval for a federal paycheck protection loan. But Wright said he’s worried about jobs for people in the region.

A snowy driveway leading to a ski lodge and mountain.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR File
VPR File
Jay Peak this past winter.

Normally in the summer, Jay Peak employs up to 650 people; currently there are less than 100 people working there.

In the winter, the busier season, the resort, just four miles from the Canadian border, usually has 1,500 employees. But Wright said hiring this year will depend on how much cross-state travel is allowed and if the border reopens.

“We’re going to build the most impossibly conservative model, from a staffing and expense and a revenue perspective, that we can,” Wright said. “But it will be a model that will be built to scale up.”

More from VPR: 'Terrified About Money': Poll Shows Most Vermonters' Finances Affected By COVID-19

While the tourism and hospitality industry have been hit hard by the pandemic, in some areas the Northeast Kingdom is faring better than other parts of the state.

While the Kingdom for years has suffered from higher unemployment than other regions in Vermont, in the most recent labor statistics, the St. Johnsbury labor market had a 9.4% unemployment rate — the same as the statewide average. Meanwhile Woodstock, which had the highest unemployment in the state, was nearly 17%.

The relative success of the Kingdom might be due to more diversity in its labor market. In Woodstock, about 45% of its workforce is in the hospitality sector. By comparison, in St. Johnsbury, hospitality accounts for just under 9% of the market.

"I don't care what the governor says, I need to sell some pies." — Rob Burke, Northeast Kingdom business owner

But for those in the Kingdom who rely on tourists, it’s still a tough year. Most I spoke with said that they could make it through, but they’re counting on next year to be better.

Burke, the guy with the yurt and farm stand, said he needs to start making money, and he hopes the state doesn’t impose any more restrictions.

“I don’t care what the governor says, I need to sell some pies,” he said.

Burke said he’s hopeful — he’s seeing a slight uptick in out-of-state license plates driving by his house, and that means more customers to buy his hemp oil and jam.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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