House panel eyes bill opening way for state to back $28M bond for Balsams resort redevelopment

A roster of residents from the economically distressed North Country took to the podium Tuesday at a public hearing to urge passage of a measure that could help an ambitious plan to redevelop the shuttered Balsams resort in Coos County.

Closed businesses, high unemployment and an aging population exacerbated by an exodus of young people are taking tolls on the state's poorest county, supporters said. They see the promised restoration of one of the last grand hotels in the state as a lifeline that would create jobs at the resort in Dixville Notch and in surrounding areas.

"Poverty runs through Coos County like a river," said state Sen. Jeff Woodburn, who represents the county.

Woodburn's bill would treat unincorporated areas, such as Dixville Notch, the same way the law treats incorporated places, allowing them to create special taxing districts that serve as a vehicle for the state to back bonds. In this case, Maine businessman Les Otten is seeking a $28 million, state-backed bond to help finance the $143 million Balsams project.

The Balsams, where the nation's first presidential primary ballots have been traditionally cast, closed in 2011 after about 150 years in business and took with it hundreds of jobs in a region that has struggled to create or keep jobs. Otten noted that the inn was still pulling in $400 a night for a room when it closed despite having no amenities such as cell service or televisions in every room. Today, the clientele for such "luxurious but primitive" accommodations is too small to support the resort.

Otten's plan would renovate existing buildings and build a 400-room hotel, a conference center and a spa and retreat. It would also expand the ski area around the inn. Some 1,700 jobs could be created, according to a study commissioned by the developer. The full project, with an estimated cost of more than $320 million, would be finished by 2024.

Legislators on the House Finance committee questioned the financial prospects of the plan and worried that if it was unsuccessful, state taxpayers would be on the hook for the $28 million bond, which would be vetted and managed through the state's Business Finance Authority.

"You're asking us to put $28 million of taxpayer money on the line and that makes us very cautious," said Neal Kurk, committee chairman.

Jack Donovan, executive director of the BFA, testified that the state would be first in line to get its money back if the project failed.

George Bald, the former commissioner of the state's Department of Resources and Economic Development, said he hated to see the North Country suffer and urged the committee to recommend the measure's passage.

"There are times that demand we prime the pump," he said. "It's time we do it."

The few voices of opposition worried the bill would set a dangerous precedent.

"This is a benefit to a very small group of people," said Kevin Bloom of the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance.

The bill, which has already passed the Senate, faces more work at the committee level before going to the full House for a vote.