A Tour de Force
A paragliding accident laid the path for this business
by Keith Morrill
Rick Sharp and his wife, Ruth Masters, are the owners of the 101-acre Sharp Park in Milton and its sister business, Burlington Segways, which offers urban tours of Vermont’s Queen City.
Aistening to Rick Sharp talk about Burlington — whether he’s rattling off the Queen City’s history or lauding its finest features — is like hearing a proud father boast of his child. And when he says that Burlington is the greatest city in the world, you sense that he means it.
Anyone familiar with the Burlington political scene in the ’70s and ’80s knows that Sharp played an instrumental role in creating both the Burlington bike path (now Burlington’s Number 1 attraction on TripAdvisor) and Waterfront Park (TripAdvisor’s Number 2 attraction), fending off several attempts to fill the space with condominiums, hotels, and retail spaces.
It’s fitting that 30 years later, his livelihood should once again be connected to the recreational artery he helped create. Sharp and his wife, Ruth Masters, are the owners of Burlington Segways, a touring business that caters to tourists and locals interested in a novel approach to seeing Burlington. While business is rolling along steadily now, the path was anything but smooth.
Sharp navigated a difficult childhood in Bellows Falls. His mother died when he was less than 2 years old, and his father, when he was 14. He spent his remaining school years being raised by his stepmother and living in poverty. “There was no way in hell I was going to college unless I was granted a scholarship,” he says. Fortunately, he graduated from high school in 1971 with a full ride to the University of Southern California.
In ’75 Sharp earned his bachelor of arts in political science, and with a transcript of almost nothing but A’s (he earned one B in his second year of Russian), he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.
His sterling academic record earned him another full ride, this time to Georgetown Law where he worked as a fellow, teaching first-year students legal research and writing.
Driven by memories of watching the paper mills in Bellows Falls dye the Connecticut River green and purple and blue, Sharp became involved with environmental law. During his third year at Georgetown, he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, drafting hazardous waste regulations for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
He cites Justice William O. Douglas as a personal hero who has inspired him throughout his life, particularly during the period when he was battling to protect Burlington’s lakeside.
After earning his J.D. in 1978, Sharp could have easily pursued a lucrative career in a metropolitan area, but he turned his attention back to the Green Mountains.
“I knew I always wanted to come back to Vermont,” he explains, citing his debt to the community that he feels has given him so much. In Vermont, he studied for the bar exam and landed a six-month clerkship with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, working to ensure Vermont was compliant with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977.
Even though he had been admitted to the bar by the end of his clerkship, Sharp stayed on for another two years to negotiate the closure of outdated dumps and landfills that were polluting groundwater.
He spent the next 30 years working as a lawyer, focusing on real estate, tax, and environmental law. He practiced with a number of partners — Mark Kaplan, Jacob Kaplan and Bob Geissler — at various points before operating solo from his Colchester home with Masters working as his secretary.
He and Masters had met in 1987 when she was a student at UVM and he offered her a clerkship position. They were married atop Cobble Hill, a property in Milton Sharp still owns, and have two children, Catia, 26, and Dorianne, 24.
In addition to practicing law, Sharp has found diverse means for making his living. These include renting property to college students, farming Christmas trees, and teaching thrill sports. He owns a 101-acre property in Milton known as Sharp Park. The locale is part agricultural venture and part playground, and serves as an arm of his Segway tours where rugged off-road Segways offer a different experience from Burlington Segway’s urban tours.
He also teaches paragliding at Sharp Park. The sport nearly killed him in 1996 in La Salina in Baja California. While testing conditions for a tour group he was leading, Sharp’s glider collapsed and he plummeted 50 feet, striking a nearby cliff face and breaking his leg and two vertebrae in his neck. He narrowly avoided complete paralysis from the chest down, and the severity of his leg break meant he would thereafter walk with a cane. Anything more than a hundred yards presents a serious challenge.
“That’s what got me into Segways,” says Sharp. “There’s always a silver lining to every cloud.”
The vehicles offered him a newfound mobility. “I immediately fell in love,” he says. He purchased one and in 2009 brought off-road Segways to Sharp Park.
Sharp was eager to bring Segways to Burlington. In 2010 he started petitioning the City of Burlington for the necessary permits to open his business. Initially, he met stiff opposition. People bristled at the idea of any motorized vehicles cruising the bike path.
His plans went nowhere until 2013 when Miro Weinberger was elected mayor and Sharp was able to gain attention in the new administration.
“Rick came to us and wanted permission to use Segways on the bike path about two years ago,” says John Bossange, a commissioner for Burlington Parks & Recreation. “He explained to us how he was going to do it, and we said we would try it for a year. And it went great.”
Sharp recalls that first year, saying, “We got a lot of resistance — ‘What the hell are you doing on the bike path with a motorized vehicle?’”
Yet, he says, all the fears about unleashing Segways onto the city turned out to be unfounded, and the first year went off without a hitch. “We passed that with flying colors.”
The city awarded a three-year contract in 2014. Since then, attitudes have changed, perhaps in part to Sharp’s dedication to being a good steward and user of the bike path. “These days we get a lot more people clapping as we go by or giving us thumbs-up.”
The mayor acknowledges that Sharp and Burlington Segways play an important part in the Burlington landscape. “Rick has been a stalwart champion of preserving waterfront land for public use and enjoyment,” says Weinberger. “Through the exciting Burlington Segways tours, Rick has created a unique opportunity for Burlingtonians, Vermonters, and other visitors to our city to experience our bike path, waterfront, and downtown. I am grateful for Rick’s partnership and guidance as we continually work to make Burlington an even greater city.”
Though the first two years in operation didn’t turn a profit, Sharp says the business has grown quickly. The 2014 season saw business triple, and he says it’s on track to triple again this year. To accommodate that growth, Sharp has increased his fleet of Segways to 49 machines: 25 in Burlington, eight at Sharp Park, and eight each at two ski areas.
Things have picked up so quickly that Sharp discontinued his law practice two years ago in order to give Burlington Segways the adequate attention required to meet the rising demand for tours. “It’s a lot more fun riding Segways around the waterfront all summer long with a bunch of interns.”
Sharp and Masters employ 11 interns to staff Burlington Segways and Sharp Park. All of the interns are college students, which plays well in the touring business, he says. “Our guests really enjoy the energy and vigor that comes from employing college students. The touring season — from April to November — also meshes well with the collegiate calendar.”
In the off-season Sharp and Masters tend to winter activities at Sharp Park: snow-tubing and Christmas tree sales. Activity slows down at the end of February to allow them time away.
When they’re not playing tour guide, they like to play the tourist. In the past five years they’ve traveled the globe, from New Zealand to Greece, Spain to London. Whenever possible they’ve toured each place the best way they know how — aboard Segways. •