DIXVILLE NOTCH — Although it's still a work in progress, the proposed renovation/expansion of the Balsams Grand Hotel Resort now has the support of Gov. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
"I am very encouraged by the progress toward the redevelopment of the Balsams and the project's potential to create jobs and boost the North Country's economy," Hassan said Tuesday in an e-mail.
"Through the Department of Resources and Economic Development, we are working with partners to discuss various challenges and develop potential solutions that will help make the project a reality and spur economic development throughout the region," Hassan said.
Ayotte called the Balsams "a New Hampshire treasure" whose redevelopment, the Republican said in an e-mail, "would be positive for the North Country."
Last week during a Coos County Commission meeting, there was discussion of greatly enlarging the Wilderness Ski Area, which is part of the Balsams resort.
But developer Les Otten is remaining mostly mum on everything else, including reports that the plan for the Balsams also includes building 4,400 residential units and might involve immigrant-investor funding through the federal EB-5 visa program — the same kind that made the expansion of Jay Peak in Vermont possible and is also being used at Ragged Mountain in Danbury.
According to the minutes of the Feb. 26 meeting of the Coos County Commission, Vice Chairman Paul Grenier, who is also the mayor of Berlin, told his colleagues that "he had spoken with Les Otten regarding the development of the Balsams Ski area."
The development, the minutes said, "will be done in three phases. Phase 1 would be the most complicated because it redevelops the Wilderness ski area. The proposal would be to quadruple the size of the ski area. There is a potential of 1,000 full-time/part-time jobs. The goal is the winter of 2015. All state agencies have been helpful and enthusiastic with the proposed project."
The minutes noted that "there is one issue that could derail the project" which is the proximity to the proposed development area to several wind turbines on land owned by Bayroot LLC of Lyme.
Grenier, who was not available for comment, said Otten "can live" with a 500-foot setback but not the 1,350-foot setback that had been imposed by the county's planning board.
He later made a motion, which was adopted, to send a letter to Balsams View LLC supporting the setback reduction, which would have to be considered by the state's Site Evaluation Committee, and also to copy Brookfield Power, which owns the wind turbines.
Water for snowmaking?
The principals of Balsams View LLC are Colebrook businessmen Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert, who in December 2011 bought the Balsams and the nearby Balsams Wilderness Ski Area for $2.3 million from the Tillotson Corp. of Lexington, Mass. and the Neil Tillotson Trust.
The men recently approached Otten, who made Maine's Sunday River a thriving ski resort and who later went on to found the American Skiing Company.
In February, Otten announced that he was working with Dagesse and Hebert but he did not elaborate upon his plan for the Balsams, other than to say it would involve partners and would proceed quickly.
State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, confirmed on Tuesday morning that he had met recently with current and former North Country lawmakers as well as Degasse and Otten, saying that what he heard boded well for Dixville Notch and Coos County.
The vice chairman of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee and also a member of the Finance and Capital Budget Committee, D'Allesandro said "there are some challenges" to the Balsams plan "and one of them is water because they need snowmaking."
Scott Tranchemontagne, who is Otten's spokesman, said in an email Tuesday all options are being considered, including how best to bring water to the site, although he did not say whether taking it from the Androscoggin River in Errol was an option. Lake Umbagog's outlet is the Androscoggin.
Tranchemontagne said while the developers have spoken to several stakeholders and are exploring concepts, "including an expansion of the ski area," they remained "in the exploratory phase, trying to identify the viability of certain concepts as well as potential hurdles." It's premature, he said, "to discuss specific details because we have not refined them and we do not have a development plan put together."
He confirmed that Grenier did identify a potential obstacle and "with respect to water for snowmaking, should the concept of expanding the ski area proceed, we are looking at all viable options."