Lyndon Hopes a New Bike Route Will Help the Town Tap Into the Popularity of Kingdom Trails | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Lyndon Hopes a New Bike Route Will Help the Town Tap Into the Popularity of Kingdom Trails


Published May 22, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Martha Elmes - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • Martha Elmes

For years, out-of-state visitors have stocked up on groceries and gas in Lyndon before moving on to spend their time and money in neighboring East Burke, a recreation hub in the Northeast Kingdom.

Now, community boosters are working with the Kingdom Trails bicycle network to steer some of those visitors back, hoping a greater infusion of tourist dollars will help revive Lyndonville, the town's historic shopping area.

A new path would make it easier for bicyclists to reach the town center without getting back into their cars. And residents such as retired art teacher Martha Elmes are trying to make the downtown more appealing for those visitors by creating public art and pushing for sidewalk improvements.

"We have a lot of potential," said Elmes, who recently helped start a local group called Lyndon Downtown Revitalization. She used grants to commission a large mural and start a downtown art gallery.

"We are going to link to the whole vibe" of the trail network, she added.

Both Burke and Lyndon have benefited from the presence of the Burke Mountain Resort ski area, which has been drawing visitors for more than a century. Over the past three decades, Kingdom Trails, a 100-mile network of bicycle routes, has drawn thousands of visitors to the Northeast Kingdom and fueled the growth of restaurants, campgrounds and other amenities near its trails in East Burke, Lyndon, East Haven and Kirby.

The trail network, based in East Burke, has built relationships with more than 100 private landowners who allow bikers on their property. Riders can buy trail passes, which the organization calls memberships, that are good for anywhere from one day to a year.

Spreading out the positive economic impact of visits by the network's 22,000 members is a strategic priority for Kingdom Trails. About five years ago, conflicts between bikers and homeowners led some property owners to revoke access to their land. Around the same time, the nonprofit trails group commissioned a study of the area's capacity to accommodate the popular attraction and identified ways of better distributing bicyclists on the trail network and adding more parking areas.

Kingdom Trails has since helped pay for the creation of the 103-acre Burke Town Forest and started a grant program for outdoor recreation-related projects in neighboring towns. The nonprofit also purchased two historic buildings in East Burke that it plans to use as offices and staff housing.

Last summer, it finished a three-mile loop around the privately owned Kingdom Campground in Lyndonville, where many bikers stay. This year, it's working on a two-mile loop to help riders get from the campground to downtown.

Lyndon is preparing for a potential influx of visitors. It's spending $1 million from grants and other funding to spruce up its 1872 Sanborn Covered Bridge over the Passumpsic River, where bicyclists from the trails network will roll into town. A new park there will serve as a small welcome center.

The town is moving its farmers market, which was relocated to a Lyndonville side street in recent years, back to a more visible location, Bandstand Park. The local public library acquired electric bikes that can be checked out, and it furnishes bicycle tools so visitors can do quick repairs right in the yard. Also: This summer, the 55-year-old Burklyn Arts Council is moving its summer craft fair from Bandstand Park to the Wildflower Inn on picturesque Darling Hill Road, a favorite spot for cyclists. The event will be held on July 1 — Canada Day — when riders from north of the border traditionally converge on the trails.

Elmes' group is hoping to create a state-designated downtown area in Lyndonville, which would make more grant funding available for road and sidewalk improvements.

"I feel like it's an uphill battle sometimes, but it's a worthy battle," she said. "I think everyone in Lyndon recognizes the importance of biking and recreation to our community."

Kindom Trail rider - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Kindom Trail rider

The new collaboration is more than an effort to help Lyndon thrive. It's part of a larger plan to spread out visitors so that they don't overwhelm Burke, said Elise Lawson, chair of the Kingdom Trails board and a landowner whose property is host to some of the bicycle trails.

"It's a win-win to bring riders into Lyndonville to use the restaurants and grocery stores and the farmers market," Lawson said.

While many small Vermont towns have trouble sustaining even one general store, East Burke has two and is home to a number of restaurants and a busy coffee shop. In recent years, vacation rentals have sprouted up around town. Local roads are crowded at peak times of ski, foliage and biking seasons. While Caledonia County has a median home sales price of $209,000, Burke's is $309,000, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Lyndon, in contrast, has seen its downtown fade as fast-food places, chain drugstores and big-box stores have proliferated about a mile away, just off Interstate 91. The town of about 5,700 has been hit hard by the gradual withdrawal of the former Lyndon State College, a dwindling institution that is now part of Vermont State University. A large machine tool manufacturer, Kennametal, closed its downtown plant in 2014. The investor-owned Bag Balm, which was founded in 1899, now has just seven employees in Lyndon.

The town's median household income is about $53,000, on par with the county's and well below the state average. At $62,800, Burke's median income is much closer to Vermont's, according to the VHFA.

Frustrated locals say Lyndon has long lacked a planning director who would be tasked with carrying out the recommendations in a municipal plan adopted in 2020 and a downtown master plan completed last year.

"We'd all love to see a little more vibrancy," said Loralee Tester, who was hired in April as the executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce. "We've got recreation up here, and we're not capitalizing on it."

Kingdom Trails is navigating some obstacles. Local bikers have a multitude of choices, including Québec's Route Verte, one of the longest posted cycling networks in North America. The newly completed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is a straight shot across northern Vermont, and even closer to home, the state- and federally funded NEK Gravel project features a website with dozens of local routes on back roads.

Kingdom Trails' membership numbers dropped steeply during the pandemic — the organization declined to say how much — and haven't recovered. That's because in 2019, about 40 percent of the network's visitors were from Québec, executive director Abby Long said. Since the pandemic temporarily closed the border to them, Québec residents now make up just 15 percent of visits. Long doesn't know if that number will ever rebound.

"They built a lot of trail networks up there, and the exchange rate is killing them, we've been told," Long said. Membership numbers overall have risen 6 percent since last year, but Long said the goal isn't simply more visitors.

"We want people to fall in love with not just the trails but our region, and want them to come back year after year, and maybe eventually make this their home," Long said.

Locals in Lyndon — which has its own tiny municipal ski area, operated by the 90-year-old Lyndon Outing Club — see hope in St. Johnsbury, where strong support from arts and recreation groups has spurred investment in the once-dormant downtown.

Gravel cyclist and primary care physician Deborah Harrigan discovered Kingdom Trails when attending a women's mountain bike weekend in Burke a few years before the pandemic. She likes the area's geology, which provides dirt trails with fewer of the roots and rocks so common in most of northern New England. And she was wowed by Darling Ridge, with its 360-degree views.

"I didn't know a place could be so beautiful," she said.

To be nearer to the trails, Harrigan took a job with Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury. She now splits her time between coastal New Hampshire, where her husband and son live, and a condo in the Northeast Kingdom.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Path to Prosperity? | Lyndon hopes a new bike route will help the town tap into the popularity of Kingdom Trails"

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