Spot Check: Burlington, Vermont

Comments by Dan Brown/

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If you were to head North from Boston, MA via I-93 for about 70 miles, shift your drive Northwest at Concord for another 150 miles, passing through farmland, mountain valleys and dense forests, you'd arrive at the birthplace of Ben & Jerry's and Phish, a former port of entry into the United States and home to the "Universitas Viridis Montis." Nestled between the shores of Lake Champlain and the Northern Green Mountains, you'd find yourself in Burlington, Vermont.

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Burlington, Vermont's Queen City, is home to just under 42,000 people, making it more of a large town than a city. It caters to all lifestyles from professionals to bohemians. Its colleges and university gives the Northern New England hamlet a true college town feel; filling its many coffee shops for study sessions and its numerous bars for 25¢ wings.

It sits on the shores of Lake Champlain and is ringed by the Green Mountains. It's crown is the snowy cap of Mansfield, the state's largest, which reaches above the neighboring Greens at 4395'. It's this locale that's given Burlington and the surrounding towns it's reputation for being one of the best ski destinations on the East. With storied sidecountry and thick off piste trees, it's this landscape that's made this the hub of the East Coast ski scene.

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Burlington is a skier's town; its proximity to resorts like Sugarbush, Stowe, Bolton Valley, Smugglers Notch and Jay Peak draw the park crowd and tech backcountry skiers alike. Walking down any of its streets, you'll probably catch the faded "Mad River Glen, Ski It If You Can" sticker amidst rust spots on aging Subarus or Audis, more so than a sports team logo. Belly up to a bar, conversation will most likely turn to the recent storm cycle and claims of first chair instead of local politics.

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For Line Skis founder Jason Levinthal, Burlington has been a base of operations since the twin tip manufacture moved from a garage operation to the notable brand it is today. When, with it's 2006 acquisition by K2, it's offices moved to Seattle, Levinthal decided to stay behind to run the company from a home office which is adorned with crayon pictures from his son Luke.

Levinthal sees the colleges and ski scene as Burlington's major draw, "If you're not going to go West, this is the most authentic and most legit place if you're going to school… to ski, more than go to school." Line has supported local collegiate skiers in their academic careers for a number of years, "anyone who's ever been in to it [skiing], has found our office, or found me, has interned with us one way or another," Levinthal chuckles. Always willing to help the next entrepreneur, Levinthal recently contributed to a High School student's project, helping the student make a pair of skis from scratch.

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The skier who comes to Burlington for college isn't just a lone wolf; you'll find a pack of powder hungry animals and within the city limits, there are any number of communities that will support that hunger. Most notably is the UVM Ski and Snowboard Club, who's club size averages on 1800 members, has more collective bargaining rights that Wisconsin. As it's website states, its "vision is to provide skiers and riders at the University of Vermont with the opportunity to foster and develop relationships within the entire snow sports community."

Those "relationships" often result in discounts on gear and passes to local shops and resorts. "We've had the luck of having really good connections with the resorts we work with so with Stowe, we get a pretty significant discount every year which definitely pulls in a lot of members and that's what people see as an advantage of being a member of the club" says Justine Mulliez. For it's part, UVMSSC host fall ski movie premieres and sponsors trips for it's members. Keeping things on the greener side, it offers busses to Jay Peak, Stowe and Sugarbush. The UVMSSC isn't the only college ski club in the area. Both Saint Michael's & Champlain College boast large clubs too.

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Mentioning Saint Michael's College and it's relation to the Burlington ski scene and you'd need to talk about Matt Benedetto, the student entrepreneur behind EC Headwear. The company, which began as a one man crochet hat business, is now run from an office in its 9th year on the SMC campus while Benedetto continues his education.

When asked why Burlington, Benedetto, offers a much agreed upon sentiment, "it's the epicenter of the East, we got every mountain within a three hour drive at least…Killington, Okemo, Mount Snow, Loon, Waterville…everything you need." While the options were open for any number of New England schools, Benedetto says the choice was obvious. "Burlington is a little more put together and has that vibe of skiing. There's so many colleges that are so close together that everyone feeds off each other and there's so much going on with movie premieres and urban spots."

From a business perspective, Burlington is a smart move. "I've met so many people…it opens itself to more opportunities than just meeting more people, to sponsor new events and get things going. There's Line Skis, there's Orage, there's Rome, it's definitely shown that it's a substantial place to be if you are a business and you want to be in the ski world."       bvt022211_20110223_9_7.jpg       

It'd be a rookie mistake not to mention the talented duo of Meathead Films that have tirelessly worked away at putting the East on the map for 10 years with such films as Born from Ice, Epoch, Wanderland and last year's release, Work It Out. With movies that have featured predominately East Coast spots, Chris "Rooster" James and Geoff McDonald have been stoking the winter embers each fall with annual releases and a movie tour. "We've been at it for 10 years" McDonald says over the phone, "and have worked with every company in Burlington." Further fostering the ski community, they created SkitheEast.net to connect skiers in the area digitally with everything from a place to post photos or scope the weather.

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Further down the road in Burlington, you'll find the larger space of Orage's satelite Marketing Office helmed by Steve Herrick and Mike Nick. Nick, the pro skier turned marketing director sees Burlington and New England weather as an important spot for the Quebec based brand. "It has a lot to do with what our brand does best. We make jackets, we make very warm jackets…over here you need something super warm." The oft changing weather patterns allow Nick and Herrick to stand behind the product for "when it's that freezing ass chairlift ride and real quiet, we can hang in it" says Herrik.

The pride for Burlington goes a bit deeper than just soft goods marketing, "As far as the ski scene is concerned, it's definitely the hub of the East Coast. I think some of the posers sold out, left town, went out to Salt Lake. They couldn't hack it on the eastern seaboard" says Nick. "You can throw out that whole 'I'm an East Coast guy so I can handle ice, I can handle powder, you can handle anything' and I don't know if that's what it's really done for me, that's just what a lot of people talk about but you try to focus on the skiing, and that's at Stowe. You get a lot of good terrain at the resort and you can go, and I hate the term, but sidecountry and travel out to [Smuggler's] Notch and get some stuff done out there."

When it's time to retire that perfect day at any of the nearby resorts, Burlington offers a great deal of aprés ski activities. Herrick offers his suggestions "Esox, without a doubt, is one of the best aprés ski spots in Burlington. Nectars, where Phish got started, is always popping off." "For more hole in the wall places, there's Radio Bean, Parima, Three Needs. After a powder day, you'll roll into any given bar in Burlington and they'll be 20 to 30 skiers and they're all stoked, talking about their day. There's no other city like that, that I've ever been to where you can roll into a bar and have it filled with skiers."

"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It's nice to visit other places but there's something about being on the East Coast. It's a just fast enough pace and you've got everything you need to do here, whether you're skiing or hanging out on the Lake" says Nick. "It's not necessarily the sickest mountains, but it's the whole community that makes it rad" Herrick says, and with a chuckle, adds "It's the best place in America."