Balsams developer pitches financing plan to business leaders

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By JOHN KOZIOL

Les Otten, who since 2014 has been working to revitalize The Balsams Resort in Dixville, addresses representatives of four North County chambers of commerce on Jan. 18 at the Town and Country Inn and Resort in Shelburne with State Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, who is sponsoring a bill that would provide financing for the project.

SHELBURNE — The redevelopment of The Balsams Resort is inevitable and will occur with or without him, says Les Otten, who after more than five years working on the project is hopeful a legislative solution is near to finance the project.

On Jan. 18, Otten sat down at the Town and Country Inn and Resort with representatives of four North Woods chambers of commerce to pitch that solution — House Bill 540 — which the New Hampshire House of Representatives’ Municipal and County Government Committee will consider on Jan. 29.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, would allow the Coos County Commission to issue a bond for the unincorporated township of Dixville. It would allow Otten to secure financing for the $170 million for the project’s first phase.

The bill is subject to the creation of a tax assessment district by the Coos County Commission, which acts as a board of selectmen in Dixville and the 22 other unincorporated places in Coos County. It would authorize the commission to issue a bond but only with the approval of the Coos County Delegation, which is made up of the county’s New Hampshire House members.

The bond would be purchased by a private entity and would be repaid by property taxes collected on the new development in Dixville, specifically the tax assessment district that was established in 2015 when the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 30.

SB 30 required the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority to participate in creating the tax assessment district for The Balsams, and in exchange the BFA would guarantee a loan for development within it.

In August 2018, however, the Balsams, through its lead lender Service Credit Union, withdrew its application for a $28 million loan guarantee through the BFA, citing conditions by the finance authority “that were unfortunately not contemplated by The Balsams and are inconsistent with its historical understanding of the proposed transaction.”

Not long thereafter Otten recognized that Senate Bill 30 could be tweaked to bypass the finance authority. The result is the new proposal.

In recognition of the criticism surrounding SB 30 that state taxpayers could be on the hook if the Balsams redevelopment failed, HB 540 explicitly states that “Under no circumstance, shall the county or the unincorporated place, as issuer of a bond under this section, have any obligation of any kind to repay any of the principal or interest of the bond.”

Otten thinks the new bill is the right thing for The Balsams, not only now and for his development group, but for developers who come after him there or in any of the other unincorporated places in Coos County. He conceded there is no assurance that a buyer will be found for the resulting bond.

Tucker said HB 540 is needed because in the current economy, every part of the state is doing well “except Coos County.”

“Coos is a magnificent setting for a grand hotel,” said Tucker, noting that the Mountain View Grand in Whitefield – which received a loan guarantee from the BFA – had been dormant for 10 years before re-opening (The Balsams has been closed since 2011) while the Omni Mount Washington in Bretton Woods had long been a seasonal venue until its then local owners “took a chance” and updated it to year-round operation.

The bond for The Balsams that would be made possible under HB 540, is a risk “for investors,” Tucker acknowledged, “but I don’t see it as a risk for the county.”

Paul Grenier, who is a Coos County commissioner and the mayor of Berlin, said HB540 “makes a lot more sense than SB30.” He noted that The Balsams is projected to create 600 jobs.

“Let’s not underestimate this,” he said.