Otten is ‘fairly encouraged’ Balsams on a path to success

By Chris Jensen

InDepthNH.org

LANCASTER – Developer Les Otten said he has spent about $7.1 million on his effort to redevelop the Balsams Resort, the project is moving ahead and some construction could occur this summer.

“I think we’re fairly encouraged that we are on a path to success,” he told Coos County Commissioners Tom Brady and Paul Grenier during the commission’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Wednesday.

It has been three years since Otten announced plans to tackle the project, seen by state and local officials as a terrific opportunity to boost the economy of the North Country.

But Otten said he doesn’t think anyone could have done it more quickly because it is a complicated project “but complicated does not mean impossible.”

Les Otten told Commissioners Paul Grenier and Tom Brady that he feels “comfortable” saying that some construction could begin this summer. Photo by Chris Jensen

The project has many – but not all – of the state and federal permits needed to move ahead and there’s strong interest in condominiums, he said.

Buyers have put down 5 percent deposits on “over $20 million” in condominiums and another $6 million to $7 million “are in the pipeline,” he told commissioners Brady and Grenier. Commissioner Rick Samson was recovering from surgery and did not attend.

Those are refundable deposits, however, and Otten does not yet have permission from the New Hampshire Attorney General to sell units.

Otten said “the marketplace is abuzz” over the Balsams and he’s been contacted by about 600 people looking for jobs, had about 200 inquiries about weddings and “hundreds of requests for conferences.”

Otten told InDepthNH.org that about half of the $7.1 million spent so far is his money. The remainder is from Northern Pass’ economic development fund, known as Forward NH Plan.

Otten is getting $5 million in loans from Northern Pass, which he has praised as a great benefit to the region. Otten doesn’t yet have all the $143 million in financing he needs.

But he said he is getting closer to a crucial element: finding out whether there will be a state guarantee on a $28 million loan from the Northern Bank & Trust Company of Woburn, Mass.

The bank is considering loaning Otten about $100 million, including the $28 million.

He said the bank finally has all the information it needs about the feasibility of the project. Now it is a matter of the bank taking the request to the state’s Business Finance Authority.

The BFA would make a recommendation on the guarantee, which would also need the approval of the Executive Council and Gov. Chris Sununu.

Otten said it’s not clear when the bank will make the request.

“They are going a little bit slower than we like, but they are there,” Otten said.

“There is a lot more that we have to do, but we are beginning to feel comfortable that without making any public proclamations at this point and time that there will be a shovel in the ground this summer,” he said.

Several times in the last two years Balsams officials have predicted construction was about to begin.

Brady and Grenier praised the project and encouraged Otten to keep working at it.

Chris Jensen covers the North Country for InDepthNH.org, a non-profit news outlet published online by the New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism. Jensen worked as a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland for 25 years, has freelanced for the last decade to The New York Times and previously covered The North Country for New Hampshire Public Radio.

Tillotson Fund announces grants

CONCORD — Students will have nourishing meals for the weekend. A community church will get a new ADA-compliant bathroom and needed kitchen renovations to better serve members of the community. Environmental organizations will teach local youth about invasive species and how to prevent their spread in the Connecticut River Watershed. And more.

The Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation recently awarded 19 grants totaling $324,906 through its competitive application program.

Established in 2006, the Tillotson Fund is one of the largest permanent rural philanthropies in the country, distributing more than $3 million in grants annually to support projects that focus on community revitalization. Grants are awarded to municipal, educational and nonprofit organizations throughout northern New Hampshire and bordering communities in Vermont and southern Quebec.

Grants recommended by the volunteer Tillotson Fund Advisory Committee included $8,522 to the Vermont Foodbank to support its “BackPack” program in the Lunenburg and Brighton, Vt., schools, which sends students home with nourishing meals for the weekend.

The BackPack program serves more than 1,200 kids in 28 schools and provides more than 45,000 bags or 160,000 pounds of food for children in need.

“When the dismissal bell rings on a Friday afternoon, that can also signal a time when some kids don’t get enough to eat,” said Kirsten Scobie, director of the Tillotson Funds at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. “Thanks to the BackPack program, hundreds of kids will go home with grocery bags of food in their backpacks to help keep their bellies full until Monday.”

Grant awards were made to the following organizations:

Association Sportive des Jeunes Handicapes de L’Estrie in Coaticook, Quebec, received $4,725 to expand adaptive recreation services for teens with disabilities in the Coaticook region.

Corporation de developpement communautaire de la MRC de Coaticook in Coaticook, Quebec, received $19,650 for general operations and to develop shared marketing tools.

Gorham Community Learning Center in Gorham, received $10,000 to support the purchase of a new 12-person van so the center can provide learning opportunities in Gorham and surrounding communities and provide transportation to and from school.

Governor’s Institutes of Vermont in South Burlington, Vt., received $3,000 to provide four scholarships for high school students from Coos and Essex counties to attend a high quality, residential, academic and arts immersion program.

Grace Community Church in Canaan, Vt., received $5,059 to renovate an existing bathroom to meet ADA compliance and install a commercial sink in the kitchen to help with meal preparations.

Nansen Ski Club in Milan received $6,000 to complete final construction of the warming hut.

New Hampshire Lakes Association in Concord received $17,500 to support six students from northern Coos County to participate in a paid summer program that blends environmental education and workforce development.

New Hampshire Teen Institute, Nashua received $24,500 to provide scholarships for 20 middle and 25 high school students to attend leadership training and drug abuse prevention programs.

North Country Center for the Arts, at Jean’s Playhouse in Lincoln, received $4,000 to bring eight free professional children’s theatre performances to the Rialto in Lancaster during summer of 2017.

North Country Teacher Education Certification Program at Plymouth State University in Plymouth received $66,000 to provide stipends to teacher candidates who are completing student teaching requirements.

Pew Owners’ Association of the Stark Union Church received $9,000 to support exterior renovations and improve its existing website.

Rozynski Arts Centre in Ayer’s Cliff, Quebec received $20,000 to purchase an electric kiln and eight electric potter’s wheels.

Tillotson Center, Inc., in Colebrook received $35,000 (over three years) for general operating support.

The Town of Canaan, Vt., received $22,000 to complete phase three of the Heart and Soul community engagement process and strategic plan for the town.

Trout Unlimited in Lancaster received $19,500 to continue providing youth education and preventing invasive plant spread in the Upper Connecticut River watershed.

Upper Connecticut Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area Group in Lancaster received $20,000 to implement an invasive species prevention plan and establish an education and management program for local youth over two years.

Vermont Foodbank in Barre, Vt., received $8,522 to support the BackPack Program in Lunenburg and Brighton, Vt., during the 2016-2017 school year.

Vermont River Conservancy, Montpelier, Vt., received $10,450 to complete construction of a timber frame hut and conduct a feasibility study to expand the trail system in the Nulhegan Basin.

Weathervane Theatre Players, Inc., in Whitefield, received $20,000 to support general operations, replace lighting equipment, and provide online ticketing.

The next deadline for the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund is Friday, July 14. Visit the website at www.nhcf.org/Tillotson for more information and updated grant program goals.

Council votes 5 cent increase in sewer rate

By Barbara Tetreault
 
BERLIN — Some members of the city council want Berlin to extend the urban compact to take over an additional 1.6 miles of Route 110, which would open the door to greater ATV access between the city and Jericho State Park.
 
City Manager James Wheeler provided the council with an overview of the sewer user fund, which he described as being in strong financial shape. Wheeler said both commercial and residential flows are up slightly, which is a good sign for the city.
 
The city has held the sewer rate at $7.99 per hundred cubic feet of water for nine years — customers are billed based on three quarters of their water consumption figures.
 
Wheeler recommended holding the rate at $7.99 for another year, using $614,000 from the sewer undesignated fund balance to achieve that rate. He warned, however, that the undesignated fund balance is going down and at some point there will not be enough money to keep the rate down. He said residents pay slightly less than the state average.
 
Councilor Michael Rozek proposed the council increase the rate in small increments to keep the undesignated fund healthy and avoid a large increase in the future.
 
Councilor Lucie Remillard, filling in as acting mayor in the absence of Paul Grenier, said she would like to avoid an increase. She asked Wheeler if North Country Growers’ proposed greenhouse project would be a major customer. He replied that he did not see them as generating a lot of new sewer revenue.
 
Councilor Peter Higbee said the sewer user rate has been flat so long he did not think the public would object to an increase of 5 cents. He asked Wheeler what the 5 cent increase would mean on the average bill, When Wheeler replied about $4; the council approved increasing the sewer user fee to $8.04.
 
In other business:
 
• The council began its meeting Monday night in an hour-long closed session with the Gorham selectboard, Town Manager Robin Frost and Attorney Chris Boldt. Boldt is representing both Berlin and Gorham in the auction of Eversource’s electric generating facilities. Included in the auction are the 15.2-megawatt Smith Hydro in Berlin and the smaller 2.1-megawatt Gorham Hydro.
 
• Following public hearings, the council approved two resolutions authorizing the city to apply and accept grants. One is an application for a $12,000 Community Development Block Grant to hire professional services to evaluate the feasibility of installing an elevator in city hall. The other resolution allows the city to accept a $14,000 grant to create a parking lot and trailhead area for the climbing trails at Mount Forist.
 
• City Manager James Wheeler reminded residents that OHRV use on city streets is prohibited now because it is mud season. The trails are scheduled to reopen May 23.

Effort underway to form a new farmers market in Berlin

BERLIN – An effort is underway to form a new Farmers Market in Berlin now that WREN has decided to move the Local Works Farmers Market to Gorham.
Kathy Trumbull said she is talking to people interested in seeing a farmers market remain in Berlin and contacting vendors. Trumbull said her company, Exit Realty Trailblazers, is willing to help sponsor a portion of the restart-up costs if other sponsors come aboard.
Trumbull said she feels that the decision to move the Local Works Farmers Market to Gorham was made without a lot of local input. She noted there were no discussions with the city council and questioned how much effort was put into looking for different locations in Berlin.
Trumbull said the farmers market was part of an effort to help Berlin revitalize its reputation after decades as a mill town. In a letter she wrote to Penney, she cited efforts to beautify and enhance the city.
Trumbull also noted that part of the reason for the farmers market was to address a need for fresh fruits and vegetables in Berlin after a study labeled the city a “food desert”.
Trumbull said she agreed with others, including some vendors, that Pleasant Street was not a good location for the market because the pavement gets extremely hot. But she said there are other green spaces in the city that should have been considered including the Service Credit Union Heritage Park, Veterans Park, or Laura Lee Viger Gardens.
In particular, Trumbull said she thinks the heritage park would be a good location because there is parking, restrooms, a stage for music, and a location along the river.
WREN will continue to hold its Gorham market on Thursdays, starting June 8. If a Berlin market is organized, Trumbull said she would recommend holding it at a different time – maybe late Friday afternoon and early evening.
WREN Executive Director Elizabeth Penney said the decision to move the market to the Gorham town common was made because of problems with the Pleasant Street location. Specifically, she said the city cut off access to an empty lot close to the WREN building at 117 Main Street that the organization used for its equipment.
Discussing the issue last week at the Berlin Industrial Development and Park Authority, Berlin Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme said back in 2012 the city had fixed up an empty lot lower on Pleasant Street to serve as headquarters for the market. A local business had donated its services to put in electric hook-ups and the city had installed a gate for security. She noted BIDPA is actively trying to market the former Woolworth building at 121 Pleasant that includes the vacant lot used by WREN last year.
Laflamme said there were other issues with the Pleasant Street location for the market including a lack of shade. She noted Gorham is not that far away and the market is remaining in the region.
BIDPA member Peter Higbee said moving it to Gorham will be a loss to all the people who could access the farmers market in Berlin without driving. Laflamme said there has been some discussion about having Tri-County Community Action Program run a bus to the Gorham market.
Higbee, who is also a city councilor, noted it was BIDPA that first worked with WREN on setting up the farmers market in Berlin. WREN had received a feasibility grant from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Foundation to look at Berlin as a possible location to replicate its store and gallery in Bethlehem. As a first step, it decided to get a farmers market up and running. BIDPA agreed to provide $6,000 to cover some of initial costs. The BIDPA board hoped the market would draw people into the downtown and increase activity for local shops and restaurants.
Trumbull said anyone interested in keeping a farmers market in Berlin can contact her at 631-5983 or email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..