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Construction of Balsams Could Begin In June, But There Is A $28 Million Catch

The developers of the Balsams resort hope to begin construction in June for what could be the largest economic development project in the history of the job-poor North Country. But the go-ahead depends on passage of Senate Bill 30 which would put a state guarantee behind $28 million in bonds, the developers say.

On Thursday, in a small cottage within view of the battered and dilapidated buildings of the closed Balsams, Maine entrepreneur Les Otten, who is leading the development effort, laid out a grand vision for reopening at the resort.

"We can really be an international destination," he told officials from Coos County, including the region's 10 state representatives.

The Balsams closed late in 2011 after struggling as a worse-for-wear resort that shut down each winter and lacked amenities such as televisions in the rooms.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
Developer Les Otten told officials from Coos County the redevelopment of the Balsams would bring create at least 500 jobs in the first phase.

But under Otten’s plan the 11,000 acre resort would be open all year, offering activities including golf, hiking, a spa, yoga, snowmobiling and greatly expanded ski slopes. There would also be a conference center.

 The resort would both rent rooms and sell units and Otten said they idea is to attract tourists who would stay for days rather than simply driving up to ski or play golf and then go home.

In the first phase it would include renovated as well as new buildings with rooms for about 1,000 people and a village square from which guests could take a gondola to the ski slopes.

Credit Courtesy of The Balsams Resort
Plans include a central village with a gondola for reaching the ski slopes.

“We would like to have the resort open for summer activities in July of 2016 and open for winter activities by January of 2017,” said Otten. 

“I finally feel comfortable enough saying I think there is better than a 50-50 chance of this happening now.”

Otten said the multi-phase, multi-year project would bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, including creating about 500 jobs to start with.

The estimated cost of the first phase is about $143 million, but Otten - whose background includes developing ski resorts - told the representatives he is short about $28 million.

“One of the issues that we have had not as developers, but just in a business sense, is that the property is closed. There is no reliable financial information of any money that is going through the business. So, no bank was capable or able to make a loan to the property.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
Les Otten: “I finally feel comfortable enough saying I think there is better than a 50-50 chance of this happening now.”

And that is the major reason why the state representatives were at the meeting, to hear a pitch for Senate Bill 30, which is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Woodburn who represents the North Country.

If SB 30 becomes law and the majority of the 10 representatives from Coos County then approve, it would allow the state to “unconditionally guarantee” $28 million in bonds that would be purchased by a bank.

Should the resort go bust, the state would have a lien on the property and could attempt to recover the funds.

It has been several decades since New Hampshire used that tactic to back a project, said Jeff Rose, the commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
DRED Commissioner Jeff Rose said the project is "a once in a lifetime opportunity."

But if SB 30 doesn’t pass, Otten said, the plan is dead.

"It is economics and it is not meant to be threatening. There is no Plan B," he said. "It is the last chance to save the ship before it goes down."

Not surprisingly in the economically bleak North Country, elected officials including Coos County Commissioner Tom Brady are enthusiastic about the project.

“I think this is absolutely awesome to see this.”

But the 10 state reps also recognize the challenge of getting the rest of the legislature to pass Senate Bill 30, said Herb Richardson, a representative from Lancaster.

"We've got a job," he said. "But I have faith enough in the state."

Otten said he is putting almost $1 million of his money into Dixville Capital, his development organization. He said Coos businessmen Dan Hebert and Dan Dagesse - who bought the Balsams and did not attend the meeting - "are contributing the property."

Commissioner Rose told the Coos legislators the project is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” and has the backing of Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

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