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News from everywhere *but* Central New Hampshire.

With Loan In Jeopardy, Balsams Redevelopment Hits A Snag

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

The Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch closed its doors in 2011 after more than a century of serving North Country tourists.

A few years ago, a private developer stepped forward with hopes of revitalizing the property, but yesterday, there was another setback for the famed property: a financing deal backed by taxpayer money is now on hold after the parties failed to come to terms.

NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello speaks with reporter Todd Bookman about what the announcement could mean for the iconic resort.

(Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)

The Balsams is one of the New Hampshire grand hotels that we working stiffs dream about but can’t afford to stay in…

Well, sometimes it’s worth splurging, Peter, but yes, this place is dripping with history and charm. It dates back to the 1860s, with expansions along the way. Four-hundred hotel rooms sitting on 11,000 acres of North Country wilderness. There was skiing, golf, food. It had it all, until 2011, when the property ran into hard times, shut its doors and was sold off.

For years, though, we’ve been hearing about its comeback...

That comeback is being led by a private developer named Les Otten. He’s a big name in the ski resort industry--he owned or co-owned a couple of well-known places including Sunday River, Killington, and Mt. Snow. He was also co-owner of the Red Sox for a while. And he has big plans for the Balsams.

He has proposed a $170-million renovation of the property, turning it into a four-season resort, and bringing back its former elegance. He and his team, for the past few years, have been figuring out just how to pay for this. They are attempting to use a mix of funding sources: private money, foreign investment, and a loan guarantee from the state.

And that brings us to the latest which is that the taxpayer-guaranteed money now appears to be on hold?

The backstory to this money is a few years ago state lawmakers approved up to $28-million in loan guarantees. This wouldn’t be state money, but if the project went belly up, the state would be on the hook to repay $28-million to Les Otten’s creditors.

One catch, though, was that the loan guarantee would have be approved by the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority. Otten announced yesterday that he has withdrawn his application to the BFA. He says the BFA was looking to impose certain financial conditions that were not contemplated by the Balsams.

The BFA was apparently caught off guard by this announcement. I spoke with BFA Board Chair Dick Anagnost. He says the BFA was simply looking to ensure the public’s money was being taken care of.

“We are mandated to protect the state of New Hampshire’s money, taxpayers money,” said Anagnost.

Short and sweet. The BFA says the developers weren’t able to meet what it calls “normal and customary conditions” for the loan guarantee.

So what does this mean for the project?

In a statement, Les Otten says the development team needs “some time to reassess our approach to financing.” Remember, the $28-million in taxpayer-backed money is just one piece in a larger financing package.

So, is this dead? That’s not really clear at this point. One person is still bullish on the project, though, and that’s Joe Kenney. Kenney is an Executive Councilor who represents the North Country in Concord. He says the announcement was a disappointment, “but I feel optimistic that Mr. Otten sees this vision, sees this as a part of his legacy, and sees this as something that is right for the North Country.”

From Kenney’s perspective, this isn’t just a hotel property that could make a team of developers some money. Kenney sees this as jobs for the North Country, as an investment, and a signal that northern New Hampshire is worth investing in. At this point, we just don’t know where that investment money may come from.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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