The small Northeast Kingdom city of Newport has its economic hopes pegged to a long-neglected asset: Lake Memphremagog.
For years, the city turned its back on the lake. Buildings on Main Street face away from the water, and a shopping center on one end of town blocked access to the shore.
But that’s starting to change. Pomerleau Real Estate, which owns the shopping center, worked with the city to open up a lakeside recreational trail.
And now the city has teamed up with a conservation group to focus on a key piece of undeveloped property within the city limits. The plans include a new bike path that will run along the lakeshore and connect to trails in Canada.
On a cool, late summer morning, Tracy Zschau, the conservation director of the Vermont Land Trust, showed off the group’s keystone project in Newport.
“I’m taking you down to the sandy beach on the lake which if you were to stand at the city docks and the Gateway Center and look out on the lake, your view is pretty much the Scott farm, the former Scott Farm,” Zschau said. “This wooded bluff and the sand beach frames the Newport city view.”
The Land Trust bought the property in 2015 just as a bank planned a foreclosure auction. For generations, the land — also known as the Bluffside Farm — was closed to the public and people were not allowed to roam its woods, fields and beaches.
But the posted signs have come down and its 129 acres are used for gardens, education projects at the nearby high school, as well as hiking and hunting. Zschau said the Vermont Land Trust heard from many Newport residents who want to build on that public access.
“We heard loud and clear that given where the farm sits in Newport between a number of different community assets, given its position on the waterfront, that there were many ways this property could enhance access to the lake and recreation,” Zschau said. “And some of the ideas we’re working on now came directly from those meetings.”
One big idea is a bike path that will connect with an existing trail along the city’s waterfront to form a 7-mile, car-free corridor that will link to a trail that runs up to Canada. From there, the trail ties into popular bike routes north of the border.
The Newport project represents a new direction for the Vermont Land Trust, one in which it’s involved directly in a region’s future for the long-term.
Vermont Land Trust President Nick Richardson said the nonprofit first thought they’d find a farmer to work the land, the same model it uses in more traditional conservation projects. But that’s no longer the immediate plan — instead, it’s holding on to the property and exploring a number of options.
“The more we got to know this place and, I think, critically, the work that Tracy did to get to know the community, we realized that there was a different kind of opportunity here, that ... there are multiple values, multiple needs: public access, recreation, connection to the local high school which is right nearby, the hospital,” Richardson said. “We just started to see this, yeah, as a resource that could serve a lot of different purposes.”
Down on the Lake Memphremagog shore, Zschau pointed out where a new bridge will cross a little cove to carry cyclists from a city-owned beach to the Bluffside property.
“When people started talking about this idea of connecting the farm to Prouty Beach and building one mile of bike path and what that could do to connect these two currently disconnected bike paths, you start to realize the impact you could have both for locals and recreation but also from an economic development standpoint,” Zschau said.
This is economic development not based on new buildings or industrial parks, but instead the city — with the help of the Vermont Land Trust — is focused on building an outdoors-based economy.
"This'll be cutting edge for the city," said Laura Dolgin, the Newport city manager. "This is a new way of looking at economic development."
In her office on Main Street, Dolgin pulled up Google Maps and pointed her cursor to an image of the city and its lakeshore. She said the Bluffside property will form the top part of a crescent-shaped slice of Memphremagog shoreline with public access to the water.
Focusing on the lake is not a new idea for many in Newport. Ruthie Sproull, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in town, said locals have long recognized that the lake could be an economic engine for an outdoors-based economy.
"In every public meeting where people have come to town and wanted to look at ways to promote Newport, the lake has always been number one as the asset," Sproull said.
Sproull, who likes to cycle on the existing bike path, said the new trail should be a big draw.
"I would love to to add a little length to it," Sproull said. "And actually showcasing the Bluffside Farm is going to open that resource to more people."
The Bluffside Farm trail project comes as Newport recovers from the EB-5 scandal. Developers who allegedly defrauded foreign investors abandoned their plans and left a giant hole in town the size of a city block.
Dolgin said the collapse of the EB-5 project was disappointing, but the focus on the lake offers hope.
“If we can open that up and have this very appealing thing, not only for our locals but also visitors, it just draws them right into our downtown,” Dolgin said. “So at the same time we try to develop our downtown to make that appealing and interesting with various shops and restaurants.”
But first the Bluffside project has to clear a financial hurdle.
The Vermont Land Trust kickstarted the $1.2 million bike trail project with grants and large donations. It’s now trying to raise just under $100,000 from businesses and individuals by the end of September, so engineering and site planning can take place this fall and winter, and construction can start next year.