Coos County Planning Board throws a lifeline to Balsams resort project

Balsams developer Les Otten stands while speaking to the Coos County Planning Board in March 2023 in Lancaster. Fellow Balsams project developer Ed Brisson sits in front of Otten.

Balsams developer Les Otten stands while speaking to the Coos County Planning Board in March 2023 in Lancaster. Fellow Balsams project developer Ed Brisson sits in front of Otten. Lisa D. Connell—Berlin Sun staff photo

By LISA D. CONNELL

The Berlin Sun

Published: 05-27-2024 12:00 PM

Sometimes it takes more time to bring a vision into reality as the development team behind The Balsams is experiencing in its goal to bring the former resort back to life.

The Coos County Planning Board voted to give the Dixville project the extra time it sought from the board, granting an up to eight-year extension for the vesting period. The project is seen as a Renaissance mission to restore the hospitality grandeur and skiing experience at the site spanning 11,00 acres, as noted on website, thebalsamsresort.com.

As explained by Tara Bamford, the consultant working with the planning board on the Balsams’ plans, “vesting” is “the length of time they have to complete Phase 1 in order for the project to be protected from any future changes in the zoning ordinance, site plan regulations and subdivision regulations.”

The board voted unanimously to extend the vesting period to Jan. 18, 2032.

The deadline for completion of Phase 1 was Jan. 18, 2025.

Real estate professional and experienced project development manager Ed Brisson represented the Balsams team at the board’s May 15 meeting. The board heard Brisson’s request to revise the requirements for vesting.

An earlier plan to have the Hampshire House completed and three new chairlifts plus 100 acres of ski trails will be changed, as Brisson described. Now, two new chairlifts will be purchased while one triple lift chairlift will be replaced or refurbished

Planning Board Vice Chairman Mike Waddell of Gorham chaired the discussion. Erroll resident and board Chairman Scott Rineer recused himself from the Balsams discussion and did not publicly state why.

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Since 2011, per Waddell, the board has held discussions about the Balsams project with ski resort mogul Les Otten and his team. Amenities would include an 18-hole Donald Ross-designed golf course, a spa, swimming and boating in lakes on the property. Discussions continued over the decade, up to late 2015 or 2016.

“The earliest application from us would have been 2014 or 2015,” Brisson said.

Waddell, in speaking to Brisson earlier that night, seemed skeptical about completion of the resort project. Discussion of the finances behind the resort project — either what has been invested by people eager to see the resort come back to life or what bank loans have been secured – did not happen.

Waddell said it has been over five years since he has been on the property to see its current state. He spoke of a building in poor condition and of the golf course.

There are three full time seasonal workers maintaining the golf course, said Brisson.

“We’ve been maintaining that since 2014,” Brisson said.

The average person in Coos County, Waddell said, believes the hotel was going to be saved and the golf course would reopen.

“My fear is you’re not going to have a hotel to renovate,” Waddell said, speaking of project delays.

“No one has come forward with a giant bag of capital to make this happen,” he said.

The Balsams opened after the Civil War in 1866 – the Dix House was the first building that would become the expanded resort. After a long history, a series of financial adventures and socioeconomic changes, the resort closed in 2011. Brisson said the development team is still planning to remodel the Hampshire House.

Planning Board member Tom McCue spoke of earlier discussions of extensions, one on Feb. 21 of this year.

County Planning Board alternate member Paul Grenier, of Berlin, gave what he described as the “backseat view.”

Grenier cited the lengthy process to get the North Country Growers project off the ground. The expanding site is now producing salad greens and the citrusy herb, cilantro, as it continues to build another greenhouse in land off East Milan Road. The site covers about 170 acres.

“North Country Growers didn’t have capital, but we negotiated a purchase price, and a six-to-seven-year extension.

“It’s all because the city and the developers worked closely together to put together a project,” Grenier said.

“The northern third of Coos County really needs to be supported,” said Grenier. “I think we really need to support them.”

“I agree 100 percent,” said Coos District 3 state Rep. Mike Ouellet, R-Colebrook. “If we work with them to make the project succeed, the upside is tremendous.”

Brisson thanked the board for its decision before leaving for the night.

A field trip for the county planning board to the project site on Cold Spring Road may be in order. Such an excursion would be publicly noticed as a good number of planning board members are expected to be present, constituting a public meeting.

The trip to the Balsams site would give first-hand knowledge of a building described as being in such poor condition that it is crumbling and falling into itself.

Ownership opportunities with The Balsams are available, per a link on its website, balsamsresort.com.