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Stowe Crossroads

Nothing comes easy in this historic and complex ski town. But unprecedented cooperation has produced a vision for the 21st century that appears to satisfy all.

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It is surely possible to measure the specialness of a place by the volume and timbre of debate accompanying any proposal to change it. By this yardstick, Stowe, Vt., must be one of the most special places on earth. Those who live there can agree on this: It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place, despite (indeed, because of) the nature of its climate. But few, it seems, can agree on anything else.

Against this backdrop of unending debate, Stowe Mountain Resort has endeavored to implement a wholesale makeover of a resort that has remained essentially the same since the opening of its first gondola more than three decades ago. If approved, this reinvention would fundamentally alter one of the nation’s most renowned resorts. It had better be good.

Nothing escapes scrutiny in Stowe. In the past 18 months there has been the usual blizzard of divisive issues. Should the town purchase and preserve a popular downtown overlook? Should a ramshackle village gas station become a park? Should the town-owned Mayo Farm—a farmhouse, barn and rolling fields near the heart of the village—be redeveloped as an events field? Will a Mountain Road sewer line protect the West Branch of the Little River or simply promote more scattered development of adjacent meadows? And was it crass—or even criminal—of the Stonybrook condo owners to tear down a derelict 19th-century farmhouse?

Occasionally the conflict gets ugly, as when a local business owner, angered by close town oversight, began dismantling a red-brick federal landmark at the core of Stowe in a game of chicken with zoning authorities. (Compromise prevailed, and the Bentley Building stands.)

But debate is good. And in Vermont, Stowe leads the way on issues of how to preserve the state’s cherished small-town aesthetic—issues to which much of the state is just awakening. Realizing that how—and how much—Stowe grows is not just a quality-of-life issue for residents (many of whom fled the soulless strip malls and subdivisions of American suburbia) but a bottom-line issue for the tourist industry, whose stock in trade is something as unbusinesslike as scenic beauty.

Now imagine the sturm und drang accompanying the plans of Stowe ski resort’s owner, the Mt. Mansfield Co., to reverse its decades-long market-share slide with an ambitious makeover. It’s scheduled to begin next summer (pending final approval) and is sure to be the biggest change ever at the East’s most venerable resort.

From a skier’s point of view, the improvements are obvious. An expansion of the 1938 base lodge at Mansfield is long overdue, as anyone who has attempted to secure a Saturday lunch table in its chilly interior would agree. A new transport lift will finally connect the Mansfield slopes to those of adjacent Spruce Peak, where families and beginners have long enjoyed gentler, sunnier slopes, but have had no convenient way of getting across the Notch Road. The plodding Spruce doubles will be replaced with detachable quads. And snowmaking, long an achilles’ heel for water-poor Stowe, will be increased by more than half. In the more distant future, two new lifts and additional terrain are planned for the Mansfield side.

But the centerpiece of the project, and the revenue engine making it possible, is real estate: an ambitious village at the bottom of Spruce Peak. On a site now occupied by a vintage Sixties day lodge, a parking lot, the race clubhouse and little else, the proposed Spruce Hamlet would rise: hotels, shops, restaurants and a town green, all linked to an 18-hole golf course intended to broaden the resort’s year-round appeal. (See “Re-inventing Stowe.”)

A village, condos, new trails and a golf course…on the flanks of Mt. Mansfield? Before the next Ice Age? Surely not in Vermont. Not in “anti-business,” left-leaning, tree-hugging, Bernie Sanders-electing Vermont.

To be sure, the usual gusty winds of debate in Stowe rose to a sustained gale when the plan was announced. Residents took sides, as they always do: In one camp, the business community raised its standard (except those who feared a giant, sucking effect on business down the Mountain Road). On the other side were the earnest environmentalists with green concerns and the greedy ski bums who just didn’t want to share their mountain with more wealthy flatlanders.

The debate, however voluble, was entirely moot, of course. Because as anyone knows, development never happens in Vermont, and the “militant” environmental lobby would use Act 250, Vermont’s tough development-control law, to make life a red-tape hell for the Mt. Mansfield Co.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Act 250 permitting process. Before setting his plans in stone, Mt. Mansfield Co. President Hank Lunde, a native Vermonter and battle-hardened ski industry veteran, sat down with anyone who had a stake in the project—including local business leaders and environmentalists—opened up his books, laid out his situation and asked their opinions.

One thing was clear, Lunde says. Faced with a state Agency of Natural Resources deadline for reducing its water withdrawal from the West Branch of the Little River by more than two-thirds, the resort either had to come up with a new water source or undergo drastic downsizing while relying on natural snow. The latter seemed unthinkable for proud Stowe, Ski Capital of the East and, more importantly, the bedrock of the region’s economy. And yet, Lunde insists, it was certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Stowe’s parent company, the American International Group insurance giant, with its multi-billion dollar annual revenues, would surely not be affected. By the same token, it wasn’t about to write a blank check to ensure Stowe’s future as an icon of the ski world.

“What the community didn’t realize was that for 15 years we had lost money,” says Lunde, who inherited a resort whose Vermont market-share had slipped from a high of about 14 percent to just more than 7 percent. “The place was bankrupt. The only reason it was still going was AIG, which basically was sending a check up here every year.”

In a nutshell, without more water, Stowe would all but cease to exist. And without a new revenue stream to finance it, there would be no new water. The business community, despite concerns about competition from the proposed village, quickly saw the light. Needless to say, the environmentalists—four separate groups spearheaded by the savvy Conservation Law Foundation—needed to hear more.

So, with an open mind and a “clean sheet,” Lunde went to work, talking, listening, revising. The final design of the project is the result of an 18-month collaboration, during which the main players met repeatedly, compared agendas, laid out for each other which issues were non-negotiable and identified opportunities for compromise. The Mt. Mansfield Co. made concessions: a reduced and condensed real-estate development; a smaller, more environmentally friendly golf course; a repositioning of a lift; and, most significant, a cap on growth. In exchange, the environmental groups agreed not to oppose the project during Act 250 hearings.

The final plan called for two snowmaking ponds totaling 178 million gallons, a concept approved by environmentalists since it will allow Stowe to restore the West Branch.

“We’re happy with the settlement…because it sets the stage for a good, long-term resolution of the issues,” says Christopher Kilian, staff attorney and natural resources project manager for the Conservation Law Foundation, an effective, perennial opponent of ski-area growth. “There are many additional steps that still need to occur,” he warns, particularly with regard to storm-water runoff and the “least toxic” management of the golf course.

Kilian, an avid skier (mostly backcountry), allows that he’d rather not see any new development at Mt. Mansfield. And he sees the Mt. Mansfield Co.’s willingness to cooperate as largely self-interested. But he grudgingly gives Stowe credit, comparing its approach favorably to that taken by American Skiing Co. in proposing similar base-village plans at Killington, Vt., where there’s no such truce in sight.

With the deal in hand, Stowe still must clear the rigorous Act 250 process. But if a favorable ruling comes down this fall, the transformation could begin next summer.

So will a new Stowe, if it happens, be a better Stowe? Or will Hank Lunde be remembered as the man who ruined The Ski Capital of the East? Much depends on the appeal of the final product, and Stowe seems committed to building a Spruce Hamlet worthy of its lovely setting at the entrance to Smugglers’ Notch, one of Vermont’s geographic treasures.

“We want the hamlet to look like it’s been there a hundred years,” says Rob Apple, Stowe’s director of planning and development and the man charged with shepherding the plan to reality. “The style will be historically relevant: lots of wood and stone—something that fits in well with the Smugglers’ Notch experience. We want you to go, ‘Wow, the CCC Civilian Conservation Corps, which cut Stowe’s first trails must have built this thing in the Thirties.'”

The stakes are high, for it is hard to imagine improving on Stowe as it already exists, whether for locals or visitors.

At its best, a winter weekend here is as magical as one anywhere in the world. Depending on the weather. And it must be said that depending on the weather in New England can be a losing proposition: warm, foggy rain in January; torturous thaw-freeze cycles in February; worst of all, the foot of powder ruined by wind or crust. But Stowe’s snowmaking and grooming can turn blue ice to velvet overnight.

As for its culture, there are two Stowes. One is a glitzy destination resort for upscale tourists who prefer its charm and heritage to the more modern amenities of other Eastern resorts. This is where the Kennedys came to ski. And Julia Roberts and Bill Murray and Mick Jagger and Dr. Bob Arnott. They arrive to be pampered at the Topnotch, Trapp Family Lodge, the Green Mountain Inn. They stroll the village, enjoy the busy, small-town feel and admire the dignified 19th-century architecture. They dine and party in restaurants and bars that have been around as long as anyone can remember.

The other Stowe is a community of diehard locals who have tracked out the powder and headed down to work before the tourists have finished their first cups of coffee.

“It’s a jock town,” says native son and ski historian Ken Biedermann, “with everybody skiing and biking and playing tennis and all that. But it has a cultural richness too: Great views, concerts up at Trapp Lodge, the best schools in the state. And there’s just a great sense of community—of things going on, all kinds of activities—that makes it a great place to live.”

The weekly Ski Bum Races at Spruce Peak are hotly contested, with talent ranging from intrepid first-timers to former U.S. Ski Teamers. All hope to drink deep that night from the Smugglers’ Bowl, an immense, dented mixing bowl (every dent a story), filled with icy margaritas (on the house) and lorded over by the winning team during rowdy, roving celebrations—not only of race day, but perhaps also of how good it is to be to be alive and with friends in Stowe.

And if Eastern skiers are known (or at least consider themselves) to be a cut above the rest, Stowe attracts the best of the best. “I’m continually awed,” says eight-year resident and ski-shop manager Piper Laidlaw. “And not just on weekdays, when you’ve got UVM racers training here and all the locals, but even on weekends. You’re riding up the chair and some guy goes screaming by in Salomon rear-entries and some ancient Yamaha 215s, and you’re like, ‘Who the hell was that?'”

Some of the best skiers are never seen at all. They’re deep in the hardwoods, enjoying what many say is the finest treeskiing in the East: Tres Amigos, Red Sled, River Bed, Angel Food, Mini-boos, Hell Brook, The Bruce, Teardrop, Hourglass. Each summer, a guerrilla army of incorrigible tree hounds deploys into the forest (to the dismay of forest watchdogs) and sets to work: snipping, pruning, sawing, clearing. Unknown to the tourists blithely making turns on Perry Merrill and Lord, the woods are laced with manicured tree shots, their entrances painstakingly camouflaged. There has even been renegade real estate development of late: crude, cozy huts of sticks and deadfall. Here, within earshot of the busy trails, hardcore skiers (and riders: This is Jake Burton’s home hill) can rehydrate, rest up, fuel up and, yes, smoke up, before tearing off again.

Perhaps it is understandable, then, that Stowe locals feel a sense of righteous ownership of the hill they love—and a reluctance to share it with the well-heeled hordes that a tony slopeside hamlet would surely attract. When something is so perfect, why screw with it?

But in five or 10 years, it now appears, Stowe Mountain Resort will have almost certainly changed to an extent never before witnessed in what is arguably North America’s most historic ski community. New trails, new lifts, new lodges and a whole new village. It will take a lot of getting used to.

But some things never change: The debate will always rage in Stowe—over every last detail of civic life. And Stowe itself will undoubtedly remain a very special place.