Senate committee moves forward on bill to back $28M for Balsams resort redevelopment

Associated Press

A Senate committee on Tuesday recommended a measure that would help an ambitious plan to redevelop the shuttered Balsams resort but said key details still need to be worked out.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously supported the bill to create a special taxing district required for the state to back $28 million in loans for the project. The state's Business Finance Authority would work with the developers on details.

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Committee members agreed that Maine businessman Les Otten's proposal to turn the Balsams into a world-class, four-season destination is an opportunity to reinvigorate a badly faded North Country economy.

"This is a great project, but we do have questions," said committee Chair Sen. Jeanie Forester, a Meredith Republican.

Located in Dixville Notch, the Balsams, where the nation's first presidential primary ballots are traditionally cast, closed in 2010 after about 150 years in business and took with it hundreds of jobs in the North Country region that has struggled to create or keep jobs.

Otten would renovate existing buildings and build a 400-room hotel, conference center, spa and retreat. He also would expand the ski area around the inn. About 1,700 jobs could ultimately 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.

Otten said a few weeks ago that with the state backing in hand, he could begin construction in June. The bill must first pass the full Senate before going to the House, which will likely make changes, committee members said. The earliest the House would get it is April 2; Otten said that time frame will work.

"Clearly, they got it back on track and in a way that it can succeed," he said after the committee's vote. "I'm happy to spend the extra time because it's great for the people of New Hampshire and for the people of the North Country."

Before the vote, the committee heard from several residents and business owners from the North Country who took a bus to Concord to lobby in support of the measure.

"The Balsams wasn't just an asset in our community, it had international renown," said Neal Brown, a 69-year-old retired teacher from Colebrook. "That's not there for us anymore and that saddens me."

Committee members grumbled about the timing of the request: The Senate first saw it three weeks ago after Otten had been working with the BFA and Department of Resources and Economic Development for about 18 months.

"Did you folks just think this up in January?" asked Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield. "When did it occur to them that they should tell the Legislature?"

Senate President Chuck Morse interjected: "That's not the applicant's problem."