Balsams developer unveils 'spectacular' plan for world-class resort in West Stewartstown

Sunday News Correspondent
May 24. 2014 6:22PM

WEST STEWARTSTOWN - Saying he hoped the project would have $100 million worth of investment by 2016 and continue to grow in phases, former ski industry executive Les Otten on Thursday announced "the spectacular rebirth" of the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel.

Otten, who oversaw the growth of the Sunday River ski area in Maine and was a founder and former CEO of the American Skiing Company, is leading a development group that includes Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert.

In 2011, Dagesse and Hebert, who are both from Colebrook and who both worked at the Balsams in their youth, bought the Balsams - which includes the historic hotel as well as a golf course and ski area on more than 7,000 acres in and around Dixville Notch - for $2.3 million from the Tillotson Corp. of Lexington, Mass., and the Neil Tillotson Trust.

When the men couldn't resurrect the Balsams themselves, they turned to Otten, who Thursday told attendees at the North Country Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner that the new Balsams would be a year-round resort that would attract a world-class clientele.

Phase 1 of the project would entail renovating the existing golf course; adding five new lifts at the ski area; building a 400-room hotel; and renovating the Dix and Hampton houses, said Otten. He added that the new resort would appeal to "Gen Xers," whom he called the economic drivers at resorts for the next 25 years and who enjoy a variety of activities, including motorized sports such as snowmobiling and riding ATVs.

The resort would also continue to attract people who wanted the traditional grand hotel and skiers who demanded snow and conditions that rivaled the best of the West, said Otten. Eventually, the resort would bring in water for its snow guns from the Androscoggin River.

The Balsams would create a brand that allowed locally grown produce and locally made crafts to be sold at the resort and online, said Otten. He said the transformation of the Balsams would be the biggest economic development project in Coos County since the Brown Paper Co. opened for business in Berlin in 1866.

Otten's keynote speech was preceded by letters of commendation to him and his group from U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte and District 2 U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster, who called the Balsams "one of the crown jewels of the North Country and of New Hampshire," adding she looked forward to plans for bringing the resort back "bigger and better than before."

Widely recognized as a potentially huge economic engine for the North Country, the Balsams, Otten said later, is going to need the support of lawmakers in Washington, in Concord and throughout Coos County, which he said it already has. A testament to that support was the presence at the dinner of Jeffrey Rose, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, with District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, introduced Otten, saying, "We are all waiting for this great news to come."

Woodburn said Otten helped make Sunday River into the largest destination in the Northeast and that he also had a hand, as a part owner, in turning the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox around, adding that anyone who could do the latter could certainly do the same for the Balsams.

"This community supports what you're doing," Woodburn told Otten, "and will be a great neighbor."

Otten invited the North Country community to become partners with the Balsams, saying their successes were interlinked in the effort to create "the next era of what a resort is all about."

Studies have shown that while 80 percent of people live in metropolitan areas, they, as well as the 20 percent of the populace who live in rural areas, recreate in the country, not the city, said Otten.

Because the Balsams is "off the beaten path," Otten said it has to be "grand scale" with amenities to attract discerning visitors from Europe and around the globe as well as from New England and the Eastern Seaboard.

Ultimately, Otten envisions the Balsams offering "a four-season mountain lifestyle and wellness experience" that could be accessed by visitors using the Berlin Municipal Airport, which has a 5,700-foot long runway that he said has accommodated Air Force 2 and could safely welcome commercial airliners.

Otten said Gov. Maggie Hassan urged him and his development group to go big with the Balsams, and Otten said they did.

The "resort core" would include a restaurant in the Dix House as well as a hotel with a convention center. The resort would fabricate its own hot springs, he said, and would also build an open-air, covered marketplace next to the Dix House where local goods would be available for sale.

The future is bright for the Balsams, said Otten, saying that the current ski area can be tripled in size and that there is the possibility of "economic growth for all."

Otten briefly mentioned "hurdles" to the redevelopment, saying "I'm not going to get into them," before eventually doing just that.

Although "there's nobody out there with a red flag" to stop the project cold, Otten said details have to be worked out to get water and power to the site and that setbacks from wind turbine towers on the ridges above the ski area have to be relaxed to permit the expansion.

The full Balsams build-out would be done in five phases, possibly over 15 to 20 years, said Otten. He addressed Phase 1, but not the others. The Union Leader has previously reported that the Balsams plan calls for the new, enlarged ski area, improvements to the existing facilities and construction of up to 4,400 housing units in three separate villages. Renovation of the existing resort, according to documents obtained by the Union Leader, would begin this summer with a reopening in fall 2015, and the project would ultimately create some 2,000 full- and part-time job at the resort. The documents said that for every two full-time jobs at the resort, one is created in the local community.

On Thursday, Otten did not talk about how many jobs might be created at the Balsams, but maintained that the "creation of thousands of jobs isn't an exaggeration," citing his accomplishments at Sunday River, which employs some 3,000 people.

As much as the new Balsams would be a year-round resort, tying into the 1,000 miles of ATV and snowmobile trails in Coos County, it would still be "dominated," said Otten, by the five months of the year when temperatures are below freezing.

To lure discriminating skiers and snowboarders, the Balsams must make snow that is comparable in quality and amount to resorts in the Rocky Mountains, said Otten, adding that the water from the Androscoggin would help the Balsams "make snow better than anyone in America."

When he was at Sunday River, Otten said, guests would compliment him by saying the conditions there were "as good as Aspen," and summed up that, "We're going to do that here" in Dixville Notch.

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