Mike and Chris Nelson’s gift to Billings came wrapped with a giant red bow.
The renovated Northern Hotel, shiny as a new penny and bristling with 21st century technology, opened to rave reviews in mid March.
County commissioner Bill Kennedy, one of the local VIPs who stayed overnight when the Northern opened, described his room, the atmosphere and the food as top notch.
The Northern’s grand opening was the culmination of a four-year odyssey that began when the Nelson brothers purchased the downtownBillingslandmark at a sheriff’s auction in 2009.
The entrepreneurial brothers faced many challenges bringing the hotel back to life. But they pulled it off thanks to extra helpings of creativity, finesse and hard work.
The grand reopening came with a sense of déjà vu. Seventy-one years earlier, the “new” Northern opened to similar fanfare. The original Northern had opened in 1898 but burned on Sept. 11, 1940. But even before the ashes had cooled, local businessmen declared that the hotel would rise anew, and it did. At 10 stories tall and with 160 guest rooms, the new Northern was the tallest building in Billings at the time. It was christened on July 7, 1942.
The Northern earned a reputation as an important gathering spot for out-of-town travelers and local businessmen.
Sadly, the downtown landmark began to lose its edge as the years went by. A dozen or so years ago, an out-of-town consultant who I met for an interview complained extensively about his room at the Northern. Suffice it to say that if he came back today, he wouldn’t recognize the place.
During a tour of the hotel last year, Mike Nelson shared details of Bernie’s Diner, the street-level breakfast and lunch restaurant that was named after the Nelsons’ late mother.
A couple days after the hotel opened, I took a seat at the counter and had a fine breakfast. After a few minutes of indecision that had me wanting to try everything, I finally opted for the sweet potato hash, which was excellent. It’s going to take a few return trips to explore that menu.
While it's impossible to predict the future with 100 percent certainty, the Northern appears to be set for a bright future. Local hotel occupancy has been strong and Montana's economy is humming along. The future looks bright for a downtown landmark.