CONCORD — The New Hampshire Democratic Party and one of its candidates for governor in 2020 have filed separate Right-to-Know law requests for information about how Gov. Chris Sununu came to recommend Waterville Valley as part of an Opportunity Zone where business owners could receive lucrative tax breaks.
Sununu’s family owns the Waterville Valley ski resort where he worked as chief executive officer prior to first running for governor in 2016.
Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley’s asked Sununu’s office to produce all documents regarding the governor’s decision in May 2018 to have Waterville Valley and three adjacent small towns to be part of the 27 areas of the state that qualified for opportunity zones.
“Chris Sununu’s decision also raises serious questions about whether any of the more than 100 low-income New Hampshire communities were more deserving of an economic boost, but were turned away because of Chris Sununu’s personal and financial connections to Waterville Valley,” said Democratic Party spokesman Holly Shulman.
“It’s important for the public to know what Chris Sununu’s current exact involvement is with the Waterville Valley resort, properties, and affiliated companies, whether he continues to have a financial stake in any of these, and what his involvement will be after he exits the office.”
Democratic candidate for governor and Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord used this occasion to renew his call for Sununu and all seeking this office to release 10 years of tax returns as Feltes has done.
“This latest example of self-dealing demonstrates exactly why the public deserves to see Chris Sununu’s tax returns and all communication regarding Waterville Valley being chosen as an ‘Opportunity Zone’ when there were 106 eligible communities,” Feltes said in a statement.
But James Sununu, a brother of the governor and member of the board of directors at Waterville, said the resort would not qualify for the tax breaks in this program because they are reserved for new development.
“We’ve been involved in a lot of capital improvements at the resort, snowmaking, hospitality, trail improvements but none of those would qualify as opportunity zone projects,” James Sununu said.
“The rules of the program are very complex and I’m not aware of any business interest in Waterville Valley that has (tried to) take advantage of this.”
The New Hampshire Business Review reported last week Sununu had designated an opportunity zone to include Waterville Valley, Lincoln, Thornton and Livermore.
The federal tax cut President Donald Trump championed and got through Congress created this program and allowed governors to designate a quarter of Census areas classified as economically distressed as Opportunity Zones.
Under this program, by investing capital gains from other ventures through a qualified Opportunity Zone fund, investors could defer paying taxes on those gains for seven years and get a 15% discount on the tax liability. In addition, they could avoid paying taxes on any future capital gains from the resort if they hold on to it for a decade.
The governor’s spokesman said the Waterville Valley region was deserving of the designation.
“There is no conflict of interest. The Opportunity Zones were selected and made public over 17 months ago, and the tract that includes Waterville is one of the largest geographical census tracts in New Hampshire, and only one of a few in the entire state that has four or more towns,” said spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt.
“The tract was specifically chosen for the investment opportunity in the other towns — Thornton and Lincoln — because of their close proximity to the I-93 corridor, which serves as the central artery to the North Country. Every Opportunity Zone that was selected met the qualifying criteria.”
Gov. Sununu made this designation after consulting with the Department of Business and Economic Affairs that had produced the list of areas that qualified because the area either had a poverty rate of over 20% or its median income was less than 80% of the state average.
The Waterville Valley tract met the income but not the poverty threshold.