Town in Transition

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Ludlow, Vermont

High on a trestle over Andover Street, a freight train labors through the village of Ludlow, clattering along unnoticed by people going about their business. Trains have been passing through here since the 1840s, when boxcars bound for urban centers of the East Coast carried woolens produced locally in mills powered by the Black River. If the people of Ludlow have their way, locomotives will continue to pull loads into and out of the Black River Valley, but they won't be carrying woolens. Rather, they'll be hauling in sweater-clad skiers from Boston, New York and beyond, come to play on the snowy slopes of nearby Okemo and to enjoy the charms of Vermont.

Ludlow is a town in transition. On the surface, it is a ski town. The trails of Okemo Mountain Resort dominate the skyline, tumbling off the 3,343-foot summit almost into town. For that, Ludlow is lucky: Most of the Vermont towns whose dairy, timber or mill economies have failed don't have a ski area to fall back on. And yet, the transformation to alpine village is visibly incomplete.

While Ludlow has good bones—plenty of grand turn-of-the-century homes and buildings—there are plenty of conspicuous eyesores, too. The Vermont National Bank building, for instance, a diminutive brick gem from 1921, fronts Main Street directly across from one of several garish gas station/convenience stores that hide the river from view. And at the south end of the village, a stately two-story stone house bears Best Western budget hotel signs. Next door, a graceless laundromat offends the eye. And so, Ludlow is a Victorian beauty with a few teeth missing. The village yearns for buried power lines and a few selective demolitions, which could transform it into the quintessential New England destination, with all the grace of a Stowe or Woodstock. For now, its authenticity lends it charm in a gritty, "real-Vermont" way.

"I grew up living on Route 100 when it was still a dirt road," recalls Janet Upton, 39, managing editor of the Black River Tribune. "Ludlow was just a dirty little mill town. Since then, downtown has become much more charming. I'd say 80 percent to 90 percent of Main Street has been refurbished. Of course, there's the other side of the coin, too: The outskirts have sprawled. On Route 103, you've now got this creeping commercial strip."

The village puts on its best face for visitors approaching from the east. The town common is ringed by handsome, 100-year-old homes and the lovely Ludlow Baptist Church. Up the hill to the right is Black River Academy, a red-brick Richardsonian, where Calvin Coolidge—a farmboy from nearby Plymouth—learned to read and cipher. Straight ahead is the downtown, dominated by its signature building, an old mill converted to condos. Gentle hills clad with hardwoods rise up on all sides.

A few miles east of town is the hamlet of Proctorsville, where shoppers at Black River Produce browse among beautiful cut flowers and specialty foods. Just across the river is another area landmark: Singleton's Market, which is an apt embodiment of the Vermont ski-town dichotomy. Singleton's still caters to locals, but now makes room on its shelves for the items skiers desire. Here you can stock your deer camp with beer, beef jerky and thirty-aught-six shells, or stock the condo with fine meats, chevre and a nice little Chardonnay.

Ludlow's economic health is, of course, tied inextricably to that of Okemo. For a while, both were sickly. Then, in 1982, the future began to look brighter when an energetic Long Island couple, Tim and Diane Mueller, purchased the resort and began to transform it. "I remember the first time I saw Ludlow," says Diane Mueller, "and it just looked like a town that needed a good coat of paint. When we moved here, it wasn't doing very well. But since then it has been revitalized." Mueller and her husband don't take credit for that turnaround, but they could. Under their direction (she's the people-persson who knows what families want; he's the financial wiz), Okemo has achieved 17 straight years of revenue growth. In fact, the resort has become one of the most successful in the East. Its gentle terrain and abundant slopeside accommodations draw well-to-do families who arrive in SUVs from the upscale suburbs of New York and Connecticut. Okemo reports about 550,000 skier visits a year, many more than, say, Stowe or Sugarbush and there is talk of piping in even more skiers by rail, with Amtrak service direct from Manhattan.

Not surprisingly, relations between resort and grateful town have been positive, though now, for the first time, Okemo's growth is drawing criticism from some business owners. The object of their ire is the proposed Jackson Gore base village, the last frontier of developable terrain at Okemo. Five new lifts and 16 trails would expand skiable acreage from 500 to 608. From the forest would rise a village, anchored by a 325-room condo-hotel, with shops, restaurants and services. Guests at the village—and those in adjacent slopeside condos—could eat, sleep and shop at Okemo without ever leaving the mountain.

Not all residents are thrilled with the plan. "I haven't really formed an opinion," says Upton, "but my first reaction was, 'Oh, God, there goes another piece of the hillside.' I grew up riding horses up there, and it was all farms and fields. Now it's all covered with houses."

For others, Upton explains, it's a pocketbook issue. "People are afraid that if Okemo puts in a lot of retail up there, it will draw business away from downtown. And downtown vitality is something Vermont is trying hard to preserve."

Mueller understands people's concerns, but she envisions a bigger pie with plenty to go around. "If Jackson Gore allows us to increase our skier visits by 30 percent, well, downtown will be busier, too."

If Okemo's proposed Jackson Gore expansion goes through, it will open up some well-needed, fairly challenging gladed terrain. For now the resort is an advanced-intermediate's paradise. Even the summit is beginner-friendly, democratically yielding its lovely views to skiers of all abilities.

Experts, on the other hand, will find Okemo's terrain limited. There's South Face, where you can warm up on Double Diamond and Outrage. And bumped-out Sel's Choice—where the tunes blast from tree-mounted speakers. Now, if Mueller could just do something about the shadow darkening the skies of all Vermont's resort communities: Act 60. The education finance reform law obligates towns with great property wealth to share tax revenues with towns in underdeveloped corners of Vermont. It is almost universally reviled in resort communities, and in Ludlow it unites out-of-state second-homeowners with conservative, curmudgeonly natives.

"We don't trust 'em up there in Montpelier," says real estate assessor Chuck Berry, who cleared trails at nearby Mount Ascutney before moving to Ludlow in the Fifties. 'Mount Peculiar,' we like to call it....Act 60 is a mean law. It pits neighbor against neighbor."

Still, one gets the sense that this, too, shall pass. That Ludlow, whose residents have withstood so many Vermont winters, will weather Act 60, and that its downtown businesses will survive and thrive along with the resort.

Mueller is already envisioning a vibrant Jackson Gore Village and a revitalized downtown that rivals any in ski country, the two connected by bike path and shared interests. She dreams of sleek passenger trains bringing ever more downcountry skiers into a spruced up village.

Like any real New England town, Ludlow has a rich past to look back on and keep it grounded. And like those boxcars over Andover Street, it appears to be going places.