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Les Otten Returns; Plans New Life For Historic Balsams Resort In N.H.

BalsamsLes Otten, founder and former president of the now defunct American Skiing Company (ASC), has teamed with Dan Dagesse and Dan Hebert, principals of Balsams View LLC to “establish a viable path forward for the redevelopment” of the historic Balsams Grand Hotel and the Balsams Wilderness Ski Area in Dixville Notch, N.H. The resort has been closed since 2011.

Balsams View recently purchased the resort from the Tillotson Corp. Tiny Dixville Notch has become famous as the first place in the nation to record presidential votes.

The announcement that Otten was getting back into the ski and hospitality game came Tuesday (Feb. 11) via a prepared statement from Montagne Communications, a Manchester firm. Skip King, Otten’s longtime public relations advisor at American Skiing Company, is listed as a media contact.

Otten is listed as owner of Dixville Capital LLC. Dagesse and Hebert will continue as stakeholders and closing the transaction is contingent on “a number of conditions to be worked out with interested third parties,” the statement read.

Balsams WildernessConditional approval from the Coos County Planning Board was obtained last spring by Balsams View LLC (after an earlier rejection) to totally renovate the seven-story Hampshire House and build a seven-story addition to it. Included in the plan was a new entry/reception building; new kitchen; conference center; spa; and indoor-outdoor pool. Plans also called for restoration of the historic Dix House. Estimated cost of the upgrades was expected to be around $35 million, according to media reports.

“The opportunities at the Balsams are significant,” Otten said in the statement. “There are few recreation sites in North America that have such strong potential for visitors over all seasons.

“We are not prepared to discuss development plan details at this time as we are still working through fluid concepts. We are working together and combining our resources to look at creative ideas toward restoring the Balsams as a true world class resort that will create new jobs and invigorate the North Country’s economy.”

Dagesse and Hebert praised the former ski industry leader in the statement: “Les Otten has built some of the best resorts in the United States, saved Fenway Park and has made northern New England his home for the past 42 years. Dixville’s unique and majestic location offers great potential, and this agreement represents a first step in securing a move forward for the North Country’s economy.”

Otten was, most certainly, the ski industry's major mover and shaker of the “conglomorate” form of ownership that is in vogue today with Vail Resorts, CNL Lifestyle Properties, Powdr Corp., Boyne Resorts, Peak Resorts and others. Otten’s ASC reign began with Sunday River, Maine and, in a relatively short period of time, expanded to include Attitash/Bear Peak and Cranmore in N.H.; Sugarbush, Mt. Snow, Haystack and Killington, VT (formerly part of SKI); The Canyons (Wolf Mt.) in Utah; Steamboat, Colo; Heavenly, Calif., and Sugarloaf, Maine.

The ASC empire became significantly financially troubled and was all gone by 2008 – including Otten. He had become, by then, a minority partner of an ownership team that bought the Boston Red Sox.

The Balsams has a long history with the Dix House opening in the 1860s. The property was purchased by Henry S. Hale in 1895. Some 400 guests could be accommodated by 1918. Neil Tillotson of the Tillotson Rubber Company -- the inventor of the latex balloon --became the owner in 1954.

The ski area saw its first lift-served skiing in 1964 with a 3,210-foot double chair, 750-foot novice chair, a t-bar and eight trails. There is a 1,000-foot vertical drop. Two triple chairs were added as replacements much later. The ski area offered 16 trails, 5 glades and 6 lifts by the time it closed.

What It Means: Speculation about when Les Otten would return to the hospitality/ski industry has long been a topic of bar room conversations at industry get-togethers. He is a colorful, controversial entrepreneur who may well have found the right stage upon which to perform his comeback. Perhaps the unrelated fact that Otten named his new lodging projects at several of the ASC resorts Grand Hotels might have been a missed clue. Regardless, a full restoration of The Balsams will be more than welcome in New England.

Photos: The historic Balsams Grand is on a track to coming back (Montagne Communications); Balsams Wilderness Ski Area (newenglandhistory.com)

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