By Chris Jensen
For the first time in decades, there’s a spate of hotels being built, proposed or upgraded in the North Country, with the newest being a Hilton in Bethlehem.
“I don’t remember a time like this,” said Benoit Lamontagne, the state official who handles economic development in the North Country.
The number of visitors to the White Mountains has increased over the last two or three years, said Jayne O’Connor, the president of the White Mountain Attractions Association.
But, she said, the other factor is the economy.
“It is not a surprise at all when it is this good an economy,” she said.
According to state figures there was a 7 percent increase statewide in the meals and rentals tax in the 2016 fiscal year.
The 80-room “Homewood Suites by Hilton” is proposed on U.S. Route 302 on the site of the former Baker Brook cabins and motel, which have been closed for roughly a decade. The hotel is designed for extended stays and includes a “full kitchen” in every unit. The goal is to attract vacationers staying a week or two.
Ideally, construction would begin this spring with the hotel opening about a year later, said David Eckman, of Eckman Engineering. He met Tuesday evening with the Bethlehem Zoning Board.
Eckman sought – and received – approval for the hotel to be about 75 feet high. That’s 35 feet higher than the maximum normally allowed in the small town of 2,500 in the White Mountains.
Developer Yitz Rudich of Brooklyn, N.Y. still needs a series of permits, including from the town’s planning board.
But the approval from the zoning board was crucial because wetlands around the site restricted the hotel’s footprint. So, to get 80 rooms the additional height allowing four stories was needed, Eckman said.
“We couldn’t move forward without it,” Eckman said. “It is a big step.”
It was such a big step that the developer decided not to deal with what the hotel would look like on the chance the town rejected the request.
One issue is that the route for the Northern Pass towers is adjacent to the hotel, Eckman told the zoning board.
“My client was horrified when he found out the tower was there,” he said.
He said Rudich is working with Northern Pass, hoping to reduce the visual impact by moving a tower behind a hill.
If the Hilton is built, it would be the second hotel within two years to open in Bethlehem. It’s a town known – starting in the late 1800s – for a cluster of elegant, grand hotels that hosted thousands of summer visitors, typically arriving by train.
The Hilton is preceded by The Arlington, a kosher hotel just off Main Street. It opened last summer.
The grand old hotels in Bethlehem are long gone. That business withered as tourists increasingly traveled by automobiles and varied their vacation destinations. The hotels either burned or were torn down.
But the oldest hotel in the North Country – the 167-year-old Thayer Inn in Littleton – is getting spruced up.
Starting in January Gary and Sandra Plourde took over management as part of a joint venture with the owner. The Plourdes also own the Christmas Farm Inn & Spa in Jackson.
“It sort of lost its luster so our plan is to bring that back,” Mr. Plourde told InDepthNH.org. “Updating and improving the product. Putting in new systems and technology and focusing on a customer-friendly, guest-oriented service.”
Also expected to open next year is The Glen House Hotel just below the Mount Washington Auto Road on Route 16 in Green’s Grant. It will offer 68 rooms and will be owned by the same company that owns the auto road.
On the other side of Mount Washington in Bretton Woods, the owners of the Mount Washington Cog Railway are exploring a 35-room hotel that would sit at about 5,000-feet astride the railway tracks leading to the top. The controversial project hasn’t formally been presented to the Coos Planning Board and would require a change to the zoning regulations.
The grandest project in the North Country remains the revival of The Balsams in Dixville. Developer Les Otten took over the project three years ago this month and is still working on financing and several key permits.