Les Otten’s Last Resort
From Colebrook, follow the mountain road out of town until the Balsams comes into view. Across a still blue lake, tucked between steep, pine-covered mountainsides, are two hulking buildings. One had been a sprawling, white clapboard hotel. The other looks more like a castle with gray stucco walls, turrets, and a clay-tiled roof. Pristine, unmoving, and unlike anything for hundreds of miles, the scene is like a portal to another time.
As soon as I arrived, Otten gave me a tour of the resort in his Jeep. From the road, the buildings had looked perfectly preserved, as if they could open tomorrow, complete with a tuxedoed waitstaff. As we drove behind the building, though, I saw the white clapboard structure—charred and rotting. Otten plans to tear that wing down, but he’ll restore almost everything else. Rebooting the Balsams without the historical buildings, he said, would be a waste. “If you started from scratch, you couldn’t re-create the bordello or take people to the underground poker rooms,” he told me. He was recalling the resort’s Prohibition era as if he’d been there. He had other stories, too—and sepia-tone photographs to go with them: the visits from midcentury celebrities, the black-tie parties. When the circus came to town, he said, elephants marched 10 miles to the resort from Colebrook. Through all of this, generations of guests shared more or less the same Balsams experience: no TV, no Internet, and a full staff serving them hand and foot at the wilderness palace. Otten used the word “magic,” with some embarrassment, to describe the place.
Otten is just the latest in a long line of capitalists to pitch the Balsams’ temptations to the rich since the resort first debuted more than a century ago. George Parsons opened it after the ravages of the Civil War. Next came Henry Hale, who expanded the property. Finally, industrialist Neil Tillotson turned it into his personal fiefdom, building a latex factory on the grounds and running the resort, mostly, Otten says, so he’d have a nice place to eat dinner. After the Balsams closed, in 2011, two local businessmen bought it and realized they didn’t know what to do next. So they called Otten.
At the time, Otten was running a green-energy company and had his hand in a business that markets a golfing device, along with his charities. He was also licking his wounds from a failed campaign for the Republican nomination for governor of Maine. He wasn’t looking for a new project. But the Balsams’ new owners were insistent. “They kind of played to my ego,” Otten said. If there’s anybody who can do something with this, it’s you. Dan Hebert, one of the new owners, told me Otten was their first and only choice.
Otten hesitated at first: The Balsams’ adjoining ski mountain was small and its slopes faced the wrong way, making snow conditions poor. He was about to pass, but then he saw something that made his heart race. Poring over topographic maps of the surrounding area, “I saw what I can only describe as a phenomenal ski mountain,” he said. “Everyone’s an idiot savant at something.” For Otten, it’s seeing ski resorts on topographic maps. Where developers had seen only unusable virgin terrain, he saw a mountain materialize before him—the lifts, the trails, the lodges he could build. What had appeared to be a third-rate ski area could actually be a gold mine.
Otten’s vision is enticing, but realizing it will not be easy. Because of its remote location, the Balsams amounts to a self-contained town, with its own sewage treatment plant, roads, and other municipal trappings. Further, according to two officials from the Appalachian Mountain Club, the project’s environmental costs have yet to be fully reckoned with. New Hampshire’s public support and potential loan guarantee, however, certainly improve Otten’s chance of succeeding. State officials unequivocally view the Balsams as the greatest hope for revitalizing the North Country’s moribund economy and predict the refurbished resort will create hundreds of local jobs and bring in busloads of tourists—along with their much-needed cash.
In a region that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, Otten looks an awful lot like another risk-taking developer promising to come to the people’s aid. He doesn’t like the comparison. “Can you not make me sound like Donald Trump?” he asked. He views himself as far more cautious than our new president and objects to being described as a gambler. “A true gambler makes a bet on the slimmest of odds,” he said. By contrast, Otten won’t break ground at the Balsams—and spend his investors’ millions—until he completes his meticulous planning and can be reasonably assured of the project’s success. “By the time I go ahead with something,” he told me, “it’s because I think I’ve finally taken enough of the risk out.”
As I bid farewell to Otten at the Balsams and started the long trek back to Boston, he suggested I take a more scenic route. I took his advice and drove up the Dixville Notch mountain pass. Near the top, a lumber truck careened by on a hairpin turn. Down the other side, golden-hour sun lit up orange leaves and a stream. After a few minutes, I did a double take and saw Otten pulled over to the side of the road, his arm extended out of his window, beckoning. He needed to show me one more thing.
Back inside his Jeep again, we bumped along a dirt road, Sophie in the back seat, sticking her wet nose between us. We were climbing into the heart of the ski mountain he’d envisioned, what he was sure would be the greatest mountain in the East—if only he got the chance to build it. We stopped at the base of a pristine valley. The slopes were so steep they seemed to be closing in on us. “Right here,” Otten said, pointing at the towering face before us, “the chairlift will have 1,500 feet of vertical. It’s going to be…” He trailed off. “I can’t say huge.”
With the specter of Trump stalking him, he said, “I don’t know what adjective to use.” At an uncomfortable loss for words, we were forced to gaze at the mountain in silence, contemplating the enormity of our surroundings and, at least in my case, of what Otten had taken on. Otten has explained to me that the Balsams, as he’s conceived it, is an all-or-nothing proposition: If he realizes his vision, it will be a glittering retreat—and wildly profitable. Anything less, and the project won’t be economically viable. So, gambler or not, he’s playing a high-stakes game. “This thing’s either gonna fly,” he later said. “Or it’s gonna make a big splat.”