February 12, 2014DIXVILLE — Les Otten, best known for developing the Sunday River Ski Area in Newry, Me., and being part of the Red Sox ownership that saved Fenway Park and won the World Series in 2004, confirmed in a Sunday morning telephone interview that he and his team are looking "very deeply into a long-term involvement in The Balsams." However, Otten said, there is "no ink on any piece of paper, and I do not want to raise false hopes about something that is not imminent."
Otten's interest in being involved in The Balsams has risen to the highest levels of state government.
"I can't comment because I haven't seen the final plan," replied Gov. Maggie Hassan when she was asked what she thought of Otten's possible purchase of the world-famous resort hotel in a quick interview on Saturday morning in Shelburne.
Over the last several weeks, rumors quietly circulated that Otten was one of three potential investors seriously looking to make a financial investment in the 7,700-acre property, including the hotel and the various remaining outbuildings, all owned by North Country businessmen Daniel Hebert and Daniel Dagesse, who partnered to buy the property in Dec. 2011, under the name Balsams View LLC. The two men are fondly called the "two Dannys" in their hometown of Colebrook.
The Balsams has been shuttered since Sept. 2011, adding to the dramatic loss of jobs in Coös County as well as in nearby Beecher Falls, Vt., where the Ethan Allen factory closed, leaving only the sawmill and kilns in operation.
Future development of The Balsams' property into a financially viable stand-alone recreational destination resort offering year-round employment could, however, be complicated by conservation restrictions attached to the deed that might have to be tweaked.
Early in 2012 the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) raised $850,000 from donors, large and small, to buy conservation restrictions on 5,700 acres of Balsams' property, designed to achieve three major goals: to block the proposed Northern Pass Transmission project; to permanently protect ecosystems; and to permanently prohibit commercial development. A YouTube solicitation for the project developed by photographer Jerry Monkman, which concludes with an appeal by SPNHF vice president for development Susanne Kibler-Hackler, remains on the Internet.
The deed and accompanying restrictions do take into account, however, that ridgeline wind farms, including transmission lines, could be developed and also allows for modest ski area expansion. A detailed process to resolve disagreements is included in the document, available online at the Coös County Deeds office.
SPNHF's only say or input on The Balsams' property is confined to the 5,700 acres covered by conservation restrictions, explained the nonprofit's director of communications Jack Savage in a Friday telephone interview.
The Society has no role in what happens on the remaining 2,000 acres, Savage stated. "It's not our place to go beyond that," he said. For example, even when the non-profit has been asked over the last two years what it would think should the Balsams View owners seek to bring in casino gambling, it has not ventured an opinion.
Savage pointed out that any development on the 2,000 acres not covered by conservation restrictions would, of course, have to secure any permits required by the state Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) or other state agencies plus approvals from the Coös County Planning Board for the Unincorporated Places.
Last Wednesday, Feb. 5, a scurrilous fax from an anonymous source was received by a number of people, including state employees, warning that "a group controlled by downhill ski entrepreneur Les Otten are close to attempting to covertly acquire the 7,000-acre Balsams Wilderness (Ski Area) and demolish the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch. The deal would be contingent on the simultaneous assembly of … numerous adjoining land acquisitions surrounding the Balsams through various associated straw-held third-party companies."
"The goal would be to develop a resort larger than the Sunday River Resort in Maine," the screed continues, to make the Balsams "10 times larger at the expense of clear-cutting many thousands of acres of pristine wilderness for (the) creation of new ski trails and tearing down most of the landmark building to create a mega-resort."
The fax also slams Otten's business track record.
The fax is simply riddled with error, Otten pointed out.
Its existence, nonetheless, piqued reporters' interest.
In pursuing the story, this reporter noticed that history could repeat itself. In the distant past, a former Boston Red Sox owner whose team had also won the World Series bought The Balsams.
Over 90 years ago in 1922, a former Red Sox owner — J. J. Lannin, a New York businessman — bought The Balsams, then burdened with a large mortgage, and ran it for five years.
Lannin had become the Red Sox' sole owner in 1914, the same year he bought the rights to bring Babe Ruth to Boston. The team won consecutive World Series in 1915 and 1916, and Lannin sold the team the following year in 1917.
Otten was a "hands-on" vice chairman and minority partner in the Red Sox ownership when the team won the 2004 World Series. He attended every post-season game — every one a winner — that ended the longtime World Championship drought, much to the delight of everyone in Red Sox Nation. Otten sold his share in the team in May 2007 before the Red Sox won their second World Series that decade.
Otten remains an active venture capitalist.
He has been involved in a number of startup enterprises in Bethel and Newry, Me., where Sunday River is located, including Maine Energy Systems, LLC, of Bethel that sells automated pellet-fired-boilers and produces the wood pellets these systems burn. This is the system the non-profit Northern Forest Center, headquartered in Concord, selected for its Model Neighborhood Project in Berlin that recently finished installing 40 high-efficiency wood pellet systems in one-family homes, plus in two complexes operated by nonprofit organizations.
Otten is also involved in the Phoenix House and Well restaurant in Newry, the Colony Development Company in Bethel, and Sports Vision Technologies in Bethel and Portland.