By Thomas N. Tillotson
To be frank, I have been increasingly appalled by the statements made by District 3 County Commissioner Samson opposing Balsams developer Les Otten’s efforts to reopen the Balsams but have remained silent out of respect for the rational citizens of Coos County who, I felt, did not need my input to see through his irrational reasons to oppose rational measures that we, as a county, could take to get a viable Balsams redevelopment going. However, his invocation of my Dad, Neil Tillotson’s name, as support for his vendetta against Mr. Otten has taken his public statements beyond where I can remain silent.
I can tell you on very good authority that Neil Tillotson’s dream for Dixville was that its assets and natural resources would be used to not only make Dixville a self-sustaining economy but also act as a pillar for the economic well-being of the entire surrounding region. I can also tell you that the realization of his dream was severely handicapped by the actions of his estate, whose trustees forced the closure of the Balsams based on their belief that it could never again be profitable. Mr. Samson makes the claim that he supports a Balsams redevelopment, but that claim is a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it ignores what it will take to repair the damage done and achieve a redevelopment that is economically viable.
Mr. Samson claims to be “very familiar with the Balsams property.” I suggest he is not familiar with it in any way that allows him to opine on the viability of the proposed project but I would be glad to educate him, if he was so inclined.
I have been around the Balsams for over 60 years, first as a kid visiting Dad in the summers and the last 48 as a resident and owner of the “other” major business in Dixville. I remember, as a kid visiting each summer, asking Dad how the business was going. His reply was always some variation of “not great but we have just hired “X” who was “Y” and will finally make it successful,” a refrain repeated every one or two years. Then he finally realized that in order to have any chance for a successful summer resort you had to cover the off-season overhead and be able to retain a core staff year round. Thus the ski area was borne, which, at first, consumed more money than it contributed to the annual budget. Then two things happened. First, he gave up on the idea of finding the “perfect” manager who could lead the Balsams to success and, as a last resort, had the senior departmental staff heads form their own company and lease the operation from him. The second was that the factory grew into a significant and profitable operation that could meaningfully share the burden of Dixville overhead, including converting the entire property to renewable wood energy in 1978. The combination of a summer/winter operation, an aggressive, incentivized management and a reduced annual overhead burden produced the Balsams’ Golden Years of profitable operations. Those golden years are gone.
However, even in those golden years, the profits were thin. Two hundred thirty-five rooms were just too few to really capitalize on the peak seasons when double that could be filled. On the other hand, an expanded hotel base would have created an unbearable overhead burden in the winter when even two hundred rooms were twice too many. Today, without the factory to share the Dixville overhead and the millions of dollars required just to restore the previous operation, this conundrum is even worse.
Most destination ski resorts, even today, struggle to generate a vibrant destination year-round business and face the Balsams’ seasonal conundrum in reverse. They dream of being able to bolt a successful summer resort onto their successful ski resort. Dad had the right idea to build a ski resort to compliment a successful summer business, he just fell short on the successful part of the ski area idea. It is a nice family area, but never had the scope to become a destination ski area and attract the volumes needed. Fortunately, the Balsams has an ace up its sleeve. The two valleys behind the existing ski area, if intelligently developed, as in the proposed project, would create one of the largest (and snowiest!) ski areas in the East with enough scale and appeal to attract clientele from all over the Northeast and Eastern Canada.
Of course, building a large ski area dictates a resort size and scope to match. Together they make up the minimum size project that has the horsepower to be successful. The formula is actually pretty simple. If you want to have a successful year-round destination operation, you must provide appeal for each season sufficient to stand on its own as a seasonal destination. The Balsams already has the summer, the current project adds an equally viable winter!
Mr. Samson also erroneously supports his position by implying that the N.H. Business Finance Authority has reviewed and rejected the project as too risky. Mr. Samson fails to point out that, unlike House Bill 540, which puts 100 percent of the risk on the lender, the BFA was evaluating a state guarantee of a $28 million loan as was authorized under Senate Bill 30. The negotiations between the developer’s bank and the BFA were called off when the BFA and the bank could not agree on terms and conditions acceptable to the lender, not because of an evaluation of the project’s viability. Tax incentive financing is a tool available to every town in New Hampshire, except unincorporated towns. HB 540 fixes that without risking any public funds.
I will not bother to comment on Mr. Samson’s completely irrational and circular argument about the project’s impact on county tax revenue other than to suggest that perhaps Mr. Samson is just suffering from the burnout of doing a demanding and largely thankless job as a county commissioner.
Thomas N. Tillotson is a son of Neil Tillotson, the one-time owner of the Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch.