Les Otten is back in the ski business with grand plans for turning one of the last remaining gems of New Hampshire’s grand hotel era into a full-amenity base area village and what would be the Northeast’s largest ski area. In a recent interview, the former CEO of American Skiing Co. sketched out his plans for revitalization of the Balsams Resort in far-northern Dixville Notch, well-known as home of first-in-the-nation voting.
The new Balsams, a world-class resort clustered around Lake Gloriette, will include a new hotsprings spa, a new hotel and conference center, an open-air localvore marketplace, and a four-season family-focused recreational center that includes a massively expanded ski area—“bigger than Killington,” Otten says—as well as the original Donald Ross-designed golf course, a cooking school, and yoga and mountain-biking facilities.
The historic Balsams structures—including the Dix House, Hampshire House, and Hale House—will be renovated, and new structures will be built. Most important to skiers, Otten envisions vastly expanded ski terrain—comprising both trails and glades—that spans four peaks and rivals anything in the East for size, taking advantage of abundant local snowfall and prime northeast-facing slopes.
Spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne says Otten’s group has submitted a master plan with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and an application to draw water from the nearby Androscoggin River. It will also need a DES wetlands permit.
Otten says he had doubts when he first looked the project over, but changed his mind when he studied a topographical map and saw vast tracts of potentially ideal ski terrain.
“The place stumbled when they put the ski area in in 1966. All the slopes face the wrong direction—northwest—so it never got any traction because, yeah, it snows a lot up there, but then it all blows away. A lot of industry people have looked at it over the years but decided it could never work. And I had the same blinders on when I first looked at it four or five years ago. But there’s a series of four peaks behind the Balsams that all rise above 3,400 feet. [The original slopes, he says, top out around 2,600 feet.] They sent me a USGS topo map along with the proposal, and I noticed about 3,000 acres behind the resort that face Northeast. And if you’re an Eastern ski guy, you know that’s ideal.
“That’s when it all started to click for me. Because it’s one of the snowiest locations in the Northeast. They get as much or more than any resort in New England. It’s no coincidence that there are two state plow garages up there, one on either side of the Notch, to cover nothing but that two-mile stretch of highway. It snows that much up there, as the locals know."
Otten said he envisions a ski area that rivals anything in the East for size.
“It’ll be 50 percent larger than Killington, with about 1,600 to 1,800 acres of terrain at buildout, including about 1,200 of trails and the rest glades. And it’s a giant balsam forest back there; you’d think you were out West. There’ll be a gondola from the village that takes skiers back to this really great terrain, with one trail that gets you back to the resort.”
He said the resort’s prime market will be young families, and that he intends to focus on parents in the 25- to 49-year-old age range.
“I’ve got kids now in their 30s, and I said, what would they buy, and it’s not just a condo on the side of a mountain anymore, where you’re just there to ski. They’re looking for fun and adventure that spans all four seasons, with multiple offerings for activities. You can’t compete doing just one season well. We’ll be the first ski resort to do more business from May to November than we do December to April. There’ll be a mix of products ranging from three to five stars. Initially we’ll focus on the four-star offering, but we’ll have something for everybody. You’ll see lodging prices ranging from $99 to $399 per night.”
Otten says the project aims to preserve the most historic and aesthetically pleasing structures but will raze some buildings and build others anew.
“We’re keeping about 35 percent of the of the existing structures and then building new properties. The Dix house, which has the historic Ballot Room in it, will have fine dining and a social room. The Hampshire House will be gutted and modernized, so, you know, the doors won’t stick anymore because the building has settled. The new stuff will mimic the old architectural style but with new construction. The resort will be like a big campus, all surrounding the lake and the Great Lawn in front of the hotel, where up to 10,000 people can watch a concert. The first phase will be about 600 bedrooms in newly constructed buildings. Then we’ll rehab the old buildings.
Everything at the Balsams will be self-contained, Otten says, and within easy walking distance.
“Every activity, winter and summer, with the exception of rafting, where you have to drive 11 miles to find some of the best rafting in the Northeast, is accessible without getting in the car once you’re there. The concept is that you don’t have to decide till you wake up the first morning what you want to do.”
Otten's optimistic that the permitting process will go smoothly, and he even predicts that the Balsams will be open for skiing in less than two years.
“The timeline is to break ground this summer and open for the summer of 2016, and then open winter operations the winter of 2016-17. We’ve got $48 million worth of state money guaranteed to us. It should create a couple thousand jobs, and we’ve got an independent study that confirms that.
“The most important permit we need is water withdrawal, and we’re not dealing with any Federal agencies on that. We’d be taking it out of the Androscoggin, but there’s so much acreage it’d be like putting a sipping straw in a Great Lake. It’s all on private land, we don’t have significant wetlands, and we’ve gotten very positive vibes back from the state—which actually wants this project because it’s a blighted area—so you don’t have the typical adversarial process.”