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4 local men bid on The Balsams

September 01, 2010
DIXVILLE NOTCH — Four local businessmen have submitted a proposal to purchase The Balsams Grand Resort. The offer was made to the privately held Tillotson Corporation, headquartered in Lexington, Mass., which owns the northernmost of Cos County's three iconic Grand Hotels.

The quartet of interested buyers includes Rick Tillotson of Colebrook, Dan Hebert of Colebrook, Daniel Dagesse of Colebrook and Boca Raton, Fla., and Jeff McIver current general manager of the Balsams.

Mr. Tillotson is the son of the late Neil Tillotson who died nearly nine years ago, is one of the would-be investors.

In 1954, his father, the late Mr. Tillotson, a.k.a. "Mr. T.," an entrepreneurial inventor purchased The Balsams at a bankruptcy auction. The hotel was located on land that some of his ancestors had homesteaded, and he was then able to bring in a management team who were able to revive the nearly moribund hotel. Rick Tillotson, along with his brother Tom of Boston, Mass., and Dixville, has worked for much of his career for the healthcare products division of the Tillotson Corp.

Mr. Hebert operates a privately held general contracting business — Daniel Hebert, Inc. — which recently completed an addition to the Cos County Nursing Home in West Stewartstown, and previously extensively renovated the Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster.

Mr. Dagesse is an entrepreneur who made his fortune as owner-operator of automobile dealerships in the Berlin-Gorham area and then grew a number of successful dealerships in Florida, some of which he later sold.

Mr. McIver was appointed to his post as general manager of the Grand Hotel in June 2009 by The Tillotson Corporation after its board determined that contracting with Delaware North to manage the hotel had not worked out.

Since taking the helm, Mr. McIver has overseen some renovations and restored traditions dropped by the outside management firm. 
Mr. McIver had served from 2002 to 2005 as partner at The Balsams, famous for its first-in-the-nation balloting. Mr. McIver said in a press release issued when he was appointed, "It's my goal to preserve The Balsams' unique traditions while enhancing services and amenities to satisfy the distinctive needs of today's travelers."

The late Mr. Tillotson left 100 percent of the Tillotson Corp.'s assets to charity, after ensuring that his widow, Louise Tillotson who died in 2007, would have an adequate income. This means that the financial provisions in his will come under the general purview of the Division of Charitable Trust of the state Attorney General's Office, now headed up by Anne Edwards.

Presumably any sale of The Balsams would be expected to produce the maximum benefit to the charitable interests that Mr. Tillotson established. But since his philanthropy aims are directed at the North Country, including sections of Quebec and Vermont, the AG's Office could take into account the region's long-term interests.

Tillotson Corp. CEO Grafton Corbett explained in an Oct. 2008 telephone interview that balancing the interests of the charity that would benefit financially from a sale with interest in keeping jobs in the area long-term and in preserving the forested tracts is the important task of the directors and trustees. Five directors control the Tillotson Corp. and there are both special and regular trustees who manage the Tillotson Fund (trust).

Not surprisingly, local sentiment favors the quartet of local investors as the Grand Hotel's future owners. Colebrook native Greg Placy, who this winter will head up the ski patrol at the Wilderness Ski Area at The Balsams, said in a telephone interview that it could not be anything but positive to have the resort hotel owned by local individuals who have already had successful careers in business and/or hospitality. "These four men understand what the intertwined needs of the North Country are: year-round employment and attractions that bring other people to the area in all seasons," he explained.

Former Wausau Papers worker Brian Bresnahan, who has helped scores laid-off displaced workers get jobs through Jobs Centers in both Groveton and Colebrook, said that he would certainly favor local businesspeople investing in the local economy. Asked if he thought the quartet of would-be investors had sufficient capital to make the numerous improvements and changes needed, Mr. Bresnahan replied that "they'd be able to find the resources they need." He said, "I think if these guys are very strategic in how they invest in that great property they could turn a profit."

Rep. Robert Theberge of Berlin said he would certainly favor local ownership but only if they had deep enough pockets to spend the kind of capital that would be necessary to maintain and/or upgrade the hotel to meet the expectations of today's travelers — but without changing its essential character.

He noted millions of dollars had been spent to bring the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods up to today's luxury standards.

The Great American Insurance Group purchased the Mountain View Grand in 2005 and to be successful had to make further investments on top of the $20 million that entrepreneur Kevin Craffey of Massachusetts spent. Mr. Craffey bought the long-closed hotel in 1998 and made the substantial investment upgrades before opening its doors in May 2002. An infusion of additional capital made the hotel far more appealing to businesses seeking conference space and vacationing families with young children.

CNL Lifestyle Properties, Inc., of Orlando, Fla., a real estate investment trust (REIT) spent more than $50 million to restore the historic Mount Washington Hotel and to add both a 25,000-square-foot spa and a 20,000-square-foot conference center, as well as to restore the 18-hole Donald Ross golf course. Now flagged as the Omni Mount Washington, the Grande Dame is attracting new business because of its up-to-date but historic facilities and by tapping the Omni brand's extensive database.

Mayor Paul Grenier of Berlin, who also serves as a Cos county commissioner, said in an e-mail exchange that as far as Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert are concerned, he "could not think of better people to invest in the Balsams. Mr. Dagesse worked there during his high school years, so he knows first-hand the prominence the Balsams had at one time," the mayor wrote. "With proper management, promotion, and upgrades that don't take away from its ambiance, the Balsams can become a crown jewel once again. I believe the Balsams would be far better off with local owners who also have the financial capability to make it work."

The Balsams was known to be on the block for nearly two years. Word began to circulate through the North Country as 2009 gave way to 2010 that three local men — Rick Tillotson, Dan Hebert, and Dan Dagasse — sought to buy the resort with its 7,000 forested acres.

It was not generally known that general manager Jeff McIver was part of the mix until later that spring when several elected officials were briefed and word leaked out.

Then on July 26 the Atlanta-based hotel brokerage and investment banking firm of Hodges Ward Elliot, Inc., sent out a press release to a Granite State business magazine, announcing that it had been selected to represent the 203-room historic hotel in Dixville Notch, stirring up more press inquiries and likely depressing future conference business.

Three of the four principals were willing — off-the-record — to confirm that they were the local would-be investors, but each said that release of any news of their interest would scotch the possibility that a deal could be struck.

Last Wednesday, Aug. 25, Lorna Colquhoun broke the news in the Manchester Union-Leader that four local investors had presented to Mr. Corbett their collective offer to buy The Balsams. NHPR and the Boston Globe also carried the story, but then the news blackout was put back in place. The investor group has only been willing to speak off-the-record, and Grafton Corbett has ducked this reporter's phone calls.

Neither the suggested sale price nor any timeline has been released.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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