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Otten has vision for "spectacular rebirth" of Balsams Resort

May 28, 2014
STEWARTSTOWN — Legendary ski resort developer Les Otten of Newry, Me., energized a capacity crowd of nearly 300 on Thursday night at the annual dinner of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, held at the Spa Restaurant by asking them to support him and his team, including Balsams View LLC owners Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert, in their efforts to move forward to make their vision a reality.

Otten, a successful Baby Boomer who noted that he would turn 65 in two days' time, shared his grand-scale vision for "the spectacular rebirth" of The Balsams.

"In early 2011, 155 years after its establishment in Dixville Notch, the historic Balsams Grand Resort Hotel closed for renovation. Rather than to simply refurbish the existing facilities, Dixville Capital LLC seeks to accentuate the splendor of the past with a deeply thoughtful, market-driven vision for the future. Today, a forward-thinking and economically viable plan is being created to stage a rebirth of this spectacular property," he said.

Otten pointed out that never before in his business career had he been received with such enthusiasm and positive community support. The great state of New Hampshire, including DRED commissioner Jeff Rose who sat at a banquet table in front of the podium, has been willing to try to help. It was Rose, he said, who had come up with the best descriptive phrase for what he and his team have been trying to create as a worldwide destination: "A Vision as Grand as the Location Itself."

The experienced ski resort developer, who turned the then-tiny Sunday River into a thriving multi-mountain ski resort at Sunday River and transformed the Bethel, Me. area into a job center, listed some of The Balsams' assets, including today's team: 10,500 acres of land; 150-year history; four seasons of mountain recreation and living; 100 kilometers (62 miles) of bike, run, walk, and cross country trails; 1,600 acres (2.5 square miles) of skiable terrain; world-class golf on a Donald J. Ross course; breathtaking and accessible wilderness; Coös County Farming Alliance to create the "Purely Balsams" and "Balsams Wilderness" brand; and mountain lakes on property — plus a team infused with "new-era thinking and planning" that is working on a "first-ever resort campus design," in which cars are not needed and guests connect to the environment.

Otten explained that he is looking to create a destination resort that is relevant for members of the generation, now 25 to 35 years old, that's ready to connect to the "real environment" instead of one created by merely pushing a button. Ultimately this generation will have its own children to bring to the resort.

The idea is to make the resort's developed area very "dense" — only the "size of postage stamp" — so that its vast wilderness acreage can remain essentially as is.

In his PowerPoint presentation, Otten showed four overlapping circles representing the wellsprings success at the new Balsams that will keep guests for week- and 10-day-long stays: Wilderness (mountain biking, backcountry, snowshoeing, snowboard, snowmobile, horseback, fly-fishing, hunting, ski and cross country); Wellness (local agriculture, farmer's market, equine therapy, nutrition, spiritual, yoga, and golf); Celebration (races, events, festivals, competitions, and family gatherings), plus Water (spa, swim, kayak, hot pools, grand pool, aquatic wellness, stand-up paddle board, and boat house and pier, from which youngsters can jump into the water directly or swing from a rope into Lake Gloriette). Otten hopes to pump water up over Dixville Notch from the Androscoggin River, some 10 or 12 miles away, for extensive snowmaking to create ski conditions that are equivalent to those at Aspen, Colo. He noted that over 250 inches of snow falls naturally each winter and that Dixville Notch enjoys five months of below-32-degree temperatures.

There are conceptual plans to create a restaurant in the original section of the Old Dix House and to build an outdoor marketplace patterned on the Granville Island Farmers Market in Vancouver that would feature local foods and crafts. Locally grown products could be ordered on the Internet and shipped from Coös or guests could take vacation home with them. The ski area would have state-of-the-art lifts and snowmaking, giving the resort a leg up on competitors. The vertical rise would be doubled, the skiable terrain tripled, and up-mountain dining and ski facilities built. And he mentioned to a 400-key hotel and a tram lift that would span the narrow valley to the top of the ski area that would operate year-round

Importantly, Otten said, however, is that this vision is "not being dumped on you" but that "you're joining with our vision; it's one you want us to do."

He urged local businesspeople to think of themselves as investors in the Balsams enterprise that, if its vision is fulfilled, would revive Coös County, attracting skiers and outdoor enthusiasts from across the East Coast in the winter and drawing 70 percent of its summer guests from farther away, including Paris, London, and Madrid. Otten pledged that the Wilderness Ski Area would not become a "cookie cutter" resort, typical in today's world in which ski areas have become just another commodity.

He listed some major hurdles, without providing much detail, that must be overcome, but pointed out that many people are trying to help make it possible for $100 million in capital improvements by 2016 in the first phase of what would likely be five to 10 phases, potentially over many years, to create "thousands of new jobs" and revitalize Coös County and the townships of Colebrook and Errol.

"There's no cap; the top is open!" Otten explained.

The first of the six keys to success that Otten listed is an Accelerated Entitlement Process, designed to minimize start-up costs and the start-and-stop nature of development that serves to cripple projects.

Scale is the second key in order to achieve destination status in an otherwise remote location.

Differentiation is the third key, in order to provide an alternative to the commoditized ski business, Otten continued.

The New Era Planning, Design, and Operations, designed to meet the changing needs and desires of today's consumer, is the fourth key.

Fifth, is the Critical Mass of Phase I in order to ensure financial viability for all stakeholders, including investors, employment base and local businesses.

And the sixth is snow and snowmaking and the water and power infrastructure to make it.

Conversations on these topics are taking place with Public Service of New Hampshire, Brookfield that has is 75-percent-owner in the Granite Reliable Power wind farm and has an interest in the water flow of the Androscoggin River, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) which purchased a conservation easement on some 5,800 acres of Balsams' property in 2012, designed to block the threat of Northern Pass towers.

"Nobody's standing there with a red flag," Otten said, noting that he and his team are paying their own bills "out of pocket" while they seek to find "a viable path forward."

There was a strong political side to the evening.

Gov. Maggie Hassan sent a strong written message of support: "The Balsams redevelopment project is a bold vision for the revitalization of this historic resort, and I am very encouraged by its progress and the project's potential to create jobs and boost the North Country's economy. We are committed to working with all stakeholders t help make this project a reality and spur economic development throughout the region and our state."

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Dalton introduced Otten, and District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield skipped onto the dais to be photographed with the ski resort guru. Three Coös state reps were on hand: Rep. Larry Rappaport, a Republican of Colebrook; Rep. Wayne Moynihan, a Democrat of Dummer; and Rep. Herb Richardson, a Republican of Lancaster. Coös County commissioners Paul Grenier of Berlin and Rick Samson of Stewartstown were also on hand.

The Congressional delegation's North Country on-the-ground reps — Chuck Henderson for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Mike Scala for Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and Brian Bresnahan for Congresswoman Annie Kuster — read letters, congratulating the Chamber for its efforts.

Woodburn issued a next-day statement: "Our region and state government stand together to assist and support this project (to redevelop The Balsams). While various hurdles remain, this is an exciting new day in the North Country and sets us on a path toward revitalizing our economy by celebrating our cultural traditions and natural resources. This has been a long journey for those who love this landmark property and is a testament to the resolve, community spirit and vision of two native sons, Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert, who took on this project when no one else would."

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