Northern Hotel financing comes through

2012-02-18T00:00:00Z 2012-02-18T06:38:28Z Northern Hotel financing comes throughBy JAN FALSTAD jfalstad@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
February 18, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The wait will be worth it.

This time next year, the Northern Hotel will reopen as a four-star hotel.

On Valentine's Day, the country's fifth-largest bank stepped up to finance the final push toward restoring the downtown Billings landmark.

Now, the Billings natives have finally lined up the money to restore their hometown's best-known hotel.

"God willing and the creek don't rise, we'll be open by March 2013," said Chris Nelson, who operates 22 businesses out of Bozeman.

After a year of discussions and creative number crunching, US Bank vice president Bill Gottwals said his bank will finance completion of the Northern through a "unique and complex loan with lots of moving parts."

The demolition work was completed last winter. Now that the construction payments will flow again, Langlas & Associates project manager Jason Hubbard is under pressure to finish a 10-story, 160-room hotel, plus two restaurants, in 385 days.

"People can't wait to come here because it's going to be restored to its glory, not just to the way it was, but to its future glory," said Mike Nelson, who has 30 years experience in managing hotels in Las Vegas and will manage the new Northern.

"I really want to swig a Guinness in our hotel's bar on St. Patrick's Day," said his brother, Chris.

In 2009, Chris and Mike Nelson spent $3 million at a bankruptcy auction to buy the unused and abused Northern Hotel, which many thought was headed for the wrecking ball.

Soon, 50 workers will be start constructing on the interior of the hotel at First Avenue North and North Broadway. Langlas will install an exterior elevator on the Broadway side to haul materials and workers.

"We're going to start on the ground and first floors and the ninth and 10th at the same time and work toward the middle," Hubbard said.

Almost all the 16 to 20 subcontractors will be Billings companies.

Hotels are risky investments and Gottwals said his bank and the Nelsons had to be equally creative in coming to terms.

"For bankers, it has to be the right deal," Gottwals said.

The parties declined to disclose the amount of the three-part, 20-year loan.

Last year, the Nelsons said they had invested $8.5 million, including buying and gutting the hotel, and said they needed about $20 million more to finish.

The Nelsons have taken the Northern down to the studs, run new electrical service and plumbing and restored the lobby to its original shape with steel studs marking future restaurants: Bernie's, a breakfast and lunch nook and Ten, a gourmet restaurant that will take the place of the Golden Belle. The brothers named the restaurants after their parents, Bernie and Thomas E. Nelson, both activists in restoring downtown Billings during their lifetimes.

The Nelsons had to gut the hotel so others could see their vision. After touring the empty Northern last March, Gottwals said he could finally see what the Nelsons wanted to do.

"I philosophically agreed with you (the Nelsons) that this hotel could be great again," he said Friday. "What is going to make this project work is you bring your passion to it."

Low ceilings were a problem, so the Nelsons had contractors rip out a couple layers of heating and air conditioning systems to add more height.

Smaller rooms built in another era were another concern.

The brothers recently stayed at the 1928 Sir Francis Drake Hotel, once a sister hotel to the Northern, and Mike Nelson said their rooms at that San Francisco landmark were smaller than the Northern's.

Chris Nelson owns a handful of local properties, including The Montana Bank, Hart-Albin building and parking garage, and a commercial subdivision in Lockwood that houses six of his companies, including HeliProz, a remote-control helicopter company.

"Rekindle the romance at the Northern," is his current favorite marketing phase.

First Bank, now US Bank, hired Chris Nelson for his first job after graduating from Eastern Montana College. He melded his knowledge of computers and banking into his first company, Zoot Enterprises, which helped pioneer instant credit checks.

Zoot Construction did the demolition work at the Northern. But as a condition of the loan package, US Bank required Chris Nelson to switch from his own company to Langlas & Associates of Billings, which has a track record of finishing big projects on time and on budget.

Plans to revitalize The Northern already meet requirements for four-star status, Mike Nelson said. The Northern will be affiliated with Preferred Hotel Group, which represents more four and five star hotels than any company in the world, he said.

Formal ratings come after the hotel has been open a few years.

When it is operating again next year, the Northern will employ 100 people, plus 75 to 100 for banquets.

Despite the deep and lasting national recession, Gottwals recalled some Billings projects under way or completed: Stockman Bank, the federal courthouse, the federal office building and the Northern.

"You put all those numbers together and it's an awesome amount of development in downtown Billings," he said.

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