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Les Otten out to bring back the Balsams

Les Otten is among those considering transformation of shuttered Dixville Notch resort

Before it closed, the Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H., was known for its upscale Grand Resort Hotel, which emphasized fine dining and lodging.

toby talbot/associated press/file 2004

Before it closed, the Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H., was known for its upscale Grand Resort Hotel, which emphasized fine dining and lodging.

If his latest adventure in skiing actually turns out to be an adventure, Les Otten already has figured out an important fact that is almost big enough to miss.

He’s not a 30-year-old anymore.

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“When we did Sunday River, I was that 30-year-old, right in the middle of the generation that was coming into skiing,” said Otten, a Maine-based entrepreneur whose professional life has ranged from developing golf equipment to wood-pellet energy to major league baseball, but who is best known as one of the former largest owners of ski resorts in the United States. “But now I have to look at it through the eyes of today’s 30-year-olds, not my own generation.”

Last week, Otten, now 64, announced that he and two partners were seriously considering a large rehab and development project aimed at transforming The Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H., into, in Otten’s words, “something significantly different.”

For the last three winters, the Balsams, once known for its upscale Grand Resort Hotel with its emphasis on fine dining and lodging, has been sitting closed in the northern stretches of Coos County, well north of the White Mountain National Forest and, according to Otten, “one of the poorest counties in the country.”

That’s important, he notes, because when the Balsams closed, some 300 jobs were lost, and a restoration could, even in a small way, restore some economic activity to the region.

After the Balsams went dark, two businessmen from Colebrook, N.H. — just west of Dixville Notch — purchased the property from the Tillotson Corporation of Lexington for $2.3 million, and began looking for investors interested in restoring the resort. Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert, both of whom once worked at the Balsams, said they were interested in restoring jobs.

After several attempts to get more investors involved in the project, last week Dagesse and Hebert notified the New Hampshire Union Leader that Otten, whose American Skiing Company once owned New Hampshire’s Attitash, Waterville Valley, and briefly Cranmore, was linked to the Balsams project.

Otten noted that while they are working on several ideas that would preserve the historic nature of the resort amid any new development, they are not close to a solid plan.

“I have to emphasize the ‘if’ in talking about what we might plan to build there,” said Otten, “because right now all we’re doing is looking at something. And we have to ask what is it that will appeal to those 30-year-olds now, because I think there’s a lot of product on the market today that’s not too appealing to them.”

In 1980, Otten bought Sunday River from Killington for $132,000. In those days it was a small, undeveloped ski area in Newry Maine, near Bethel. With heavy emphasis on snowmaking and grooming, Sunday River began to expand until within a decade it had become the second-busiest resort in New England (behind Killington), and a favorite destination for Boston-area skiers.

Developing and marketing were Otten’s strong suits. Early in his ownership of Sunday River, in a season without snowfall in Boston, Otten loaded trucks with snow and had it shipped to be dumped on Boston Common, making the obvious point that there was plenty of snow at his ski area.

Otten also rebranded his LBO Enterprises as American Skiing Company, which, at its height, owned nine ski areas in New England and the West. But after a string of poor winters in terms of snow, the highly leveraged company began to come apart. Its last asset, the Canyons, one of the largest ski resorts in Utah, was sold in 2008 after ASC was dissolved.

In the meantime, Otten became a minority owner of the Red Sox, and though his shares were minimal, he is credited by both team chairman Larry Lucchino and architect Janet Marie Smith as the impetus in 2001 that formed the current management group and saved Fenway Park with a major rehab.

Otten is also cofounder and CEO of Maine Energy Systems, a renewable energy company based in Bethel, and in 2010 entered the race for the Republican nomination in Maine’s gubernatorial race.

While at Sunday River, Otten said he developed long connections with the Balsams and knows the property well, though he stopped short of specifics for what sort of preliminary plan he and the ownership group have for the resort. And even if they aren’t talking specifics, Otten doesn’t mind speculating.

“I was always a mega-ski resort guy, and I still am,” he said. “I enjoy a large mountain experience. I love the ability to ski on five or six peaks and all ability levels riding the same lifts. But that doesn’t mean that all the other things aren’t important. You have to provide a diversity of activities for all seasons. Then you have to ask yourself, do I have to [build something new] or go in and redo what’s already there?”

After leaving the Red Sox, Otten tried to buy Sunday River, but lost his bid to repurchase “my unfinished landscape.”

“So I looked around for something else like it, and never found anything,” he said. “But now I think the Balsams just may be the sort of thing I’d be interested in doing. But understand that the difference between a dream and reality is just gigantic. That’s why I say we’re still saying ‘if’ about going ahead.”

Otten noted that there are as many as a half-dozen state agencies that must approve any new project at the Balsams, not to mention private investors who may be approached.

“Everybody who’s ever been in this business knows that the fastest way to lose money in the ski industry is to start down a path where you don’t have approvals to do something,” Otten said. “And that’s why we’re being very, very cautious about saying very much or going too far before we know we have a path of approval.”

On the other hand, Otten said, speed is of the essence in bringing jobs to the area. Furniture making, paper, logging, and the service industry have taken hits in Coos County, as in other rural parts or the East, and a defunct resort is a liability to everyone.

“Jobs are needed,” Otten said. “And here we have the golf course closed for three years now, the hotels are falling down, the infrastructure is dying, and jobs have gone away. People are rapidly giving up. They’re rapidly giving up and moving away.”

In such a climate, Otten said, making progress to rebuild a major new player in the ski industry should be easy.

“But,” he repeated, “dreams and reality are very different things.”

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