Colebrook regroups after another listless winter

The Colebrook House Inn may have survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the drop in tourism after the 2001 terrorist attacks and every blizzard the North Country could hurl at it, but it couldn’t get through the last few lackluster winters.

The Main Street mainstay, which has been putting up visitors since 1830, filed for bankruptcy last month, a victim of the economic stupor that has engulfed the region suffering from the lack of snow.

According to the bankruptcy filing, Colebrook Investment Corp LLC – owned by Douglas and Patricia Burns – now owes more than $640,000 – all but about $50,000 secured by the inn, which they bought in the summer of 2004. Most of the money is owed to a Colebrook bank, with about a $40,000 outstanding loan to Northern Community Investment Corp.

The major unsecured loan is from Security Service Federal Credit Union based in Texas.

The Burnses could not be reached for comment, but according to the filing, they closed the doors of the 22-room inn and 65-seat restaurant in the middle of January, before the first snow hit the ground.

According to the filing, the inn only brought in $301,456.78 in sales in 2006, some $160,000 less than in 2005. In January, the inn brought in less than $14,000.

“They were hard workers,” said Gloria Bunnell, office manager at the North Country Chamber of Commerce “They did nice repairs. But the three bad winters just killed them. They lost their savings, and they weren’t from here, so they didn’t have the options that some people from the area do.”

Other innkeepers are taking various jobs and have cut back on their services to try to get through yet another economically disappointing winter, but even those options are disappearing. For instance, the Ethan Allen furniture plant in nearby Beecher Falls, Vt. – one of the region’s largest employers — has cut back. The Colebrook chamber has taken to offering discounted tours to Canada, marketed as a last fling before new passport requirements kick in.

“We are trying to give a shot in the arm for our tourist industry. We are hoping that it will work,” said Bunnell.

So is Michelle Hinds, owner of the Colebrook Country Club and motel, which has been open for more than 70 years. But when asked whether it would remain open next year, Hinds – who has been running the facility for the past 15 years – sounded uncertain.

“That’s the plan,” she said. “But we are struggling. This business is totally weather dependent. We are hunkering down and trying to ride it out.”

The 18-room motel is right on a snowmobile trail, which provides most of its business during the winter. She estimated she lost about a third of the season’s business due to lack of snow. While it was snowing there during an April 4 interview with New Hampshire Business Review, “that doesn’t count,” said Hinds. “The season is over.”

Her husband has found some jobs to get the couple through the winter, and she hopes that some sunny weekends might entice people to stay at their golf course during the summer.

But Jim Kenny, owner of 19-room Northern Comfort Hotel, shrugged off the bad seasons, and appeared more confident about next year.

“You just suck it up,” said Kenny, who has been running his establishment for some 15 years. “You defer things you want to buy, and you hope things are going to get better.”

A more pernicious problem, however, are constantly rising fuel prices. Expenses might have gone up as much as 70 percent in the last decade, while the going rate for a room has increased by 15 percent.

“The margin has just gotten very tight, and people are not encouraged to take a longer day trip from Manchester up here,” Kenny said. “That’s a part of the puzzle that affects us in the long run.”

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