CONWAY — Though frustrated and hamstrung by lawsuits stretching back a decade, Rob Barsamian, owner and president of Settlers Green shopping complexes on Route 16, continues to believe construction of the much-anticipated Market Basket grocery store will begin by late summer, with the store opening in 2021.
The owner of the adjacent North Conway Grand Hotel, which has filed about a dozen lawsuits against Barsamian going back to the 2000s, last week lost a pivotal court case in the New Hampshire Supreme Court that challenged the Conway Planning Board’s approval of the project.
That leaves two more cases to be resolved. Those two cases challenge the plan to discontinue McMcillian Lane and build an alternative route, a project approved by Conway voters.
In a conference call last week with the Sun and Settlers’ General Manager Dot Seybold, Barsamian said that if things go well, the two lawsuits could be wrapped up in 60 days.
"If that happens, we will have a shovel in the ground this summer. We are ready to go," he said.
Asked why he thinks the hotel has sued Settlers, Barsamian said he's "baffled by it." He said all the lawsuits recently are "bad faith." He said the court is "catching on."
He pointed to a recent court order from Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius that said: “If the court finds for the defendant it may well order payment of attorneys’ fees, as requested by the defendant (Settlers).”
The owners of the hotel are brothers Jon E. Cohen and Douglas Cohen, whose business name is Bellevue Properties.
Asked by the Sun what the Cohens’ motivation is with all the lawsuits, their lawyer Roy Tilsley said Bellevue is too busy to talk about the issue with Settlers especially since the governor's orders on Monday to limit access to hotels.
They have "other balls in the air," said Tilsley.
Barsamian said the hotel has sued Settlers and/or the town about eight times in the past dozen years over various disputes, many of which predate Market Basket. Settlers also successfully sued the hotel in the past.
Tilsley in court papers, denied Bellevue was a serial litigator against Settlers.
“Defendants’ allegations that plaintiff is engaging in serial litigation is exaggerated,” said Tilsley, adding Settlers should not be entitled to attorneys’ fees.
According to Barsamian, the hotel still refuses to pay its share for snow plowing and utilities in the common areas it shares with Settlers Green, and that will be another court fight.
Even with all that history, Barsamian says he's willing to meet with the Cohen brothers to come up with any resolution that could appease the hotel and allow the Market Basket to move forward as quickly as possible.
Barsamian and Seybold said they've been trying to bury the hatchet with Bellevue for over a decade.
"I don't need any lawyers — they can bring all their lawyers, they can bring their bodyguards," said Barsamian, who offered to attend this hypothetical meeting without anyone else representing Settlers. "They can do whatever they want... even bring their consultants, their lawyers, their sisters, their mothers. I don't care who they bring."
Barsamian said if the hotel dropped the suit, he would be willing to even allow the hotel to advertise at Settlers.
Seybold said Barsamian is not a vengeful person.
"I have been watching Rob, doing deals with retailers for 30 years, and I can tell you that he does not hold a grudge and when there is opportunity to do business, and it's mutually beneficial — he's the first one to step up to the plate to do it," said Seybold.
The Conway Planning Board in November, 2018, unanimously gave conditional site-plan approval to the owners of Settlers Green for a 69,845-square-foot Market Basket store between Barnes Road and Common Court in North Conway.
In December of 2018, the owners of the North Conway Grand (Bellevue Properties) asked Carroll County Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius to reverse that decision.
The hotel sits off Common Court adjacent to Settlers Green. Bellevue’s concerns boil down to public access to their property, traffic and parking.
Barsamian said the Market Basket will provide 200 good-paying jobs from a company that treats its employees well.
"You may see a lot of troubling times for businesses because it's going to be very difficult for a lot of businesses to pick themselves back up after this (COVID -19 pandemic). So we look at this is a kind of a bright light for not just us but for the community," he said.
Seybold added that the square footage of the Market Basket is similar to the size of the original plan for Settlers Green in 1988, one of the first development projects of Barsamian's career.
In the past five or 10 years, OVP realized that the retail market is changing and began trying to make sure Settlers Green could become a bigger part of the community.
"We see where our industry is going — How can we connect better? How can we be special? How can we stand out? And so what we tried to do over the last 10 years, with Dot's leadership and the team's leadership at Settlers Green to look at some of the local people, look at some of the food establishments and become a place of gathering," said Barsamian.
"We repurposed our mission for what we deliver to the community. And all along the way, we've had this kind of thorn in our side."
Examples of local businesses at Settlers include The Met Coffee House's second location and the White Mountain Cupcakery.
Barsamian and Seybold said Settlers is doing what it can to help its tenants, by doing things like negotiating with the center's mortgage lenders to help the tenants survive.