|By Sarana Schell, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 1, 2005 - The fate of an Anchorage hotel that helped pioneer color television and brew pubs is up in the air again, another low point in a roller-coaster history of upgrades, arson and bankruptcies.
While investors poured money into new hotels in Anchorage over the past several years, long-time Midtown fixture Northern Lights Hotel declined. Now the aging hotel is tied up in court, with an uncertain future.
The city closed the Northern Lights in spring of 2002 for numerous fire code violations. That fall, a bankruptcy court judge ordered it sold as part of then-owner Mike Cusack Jr.'s bankruptcy proceedings.
The hotel started as the 74-room, wood-frame Gold Rush Motor Lodge in 1965.
In January 1970, arson killed five guests. Later that year, a six-story, H-shaped, steel-frame replacement was built, with attention to fire safety. A news story from the time noted it would be the first hotel in Alaska to have color television in every room.
Shortly after it opened, the Internal Revenue Service closed it down.
New owners' efforts to spiff up the 144-room Gold Rush didn't make the next decade turn out much better. The hotel's owners endured a string of fires causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage and adopted the Ramada Inn brand but finally declared bankruptcy by 1979.
The hotel puttered along as a Ramada for years.
Cusack Development Inc. bought the inn in 1994 and eventually renamed it Northern Lights Hotel.
On the ground floor, Cusack's Brew Pub was one of the state's first breweries and a popular eatery that got high marks from city health inspectors in 1999.
The next year, the pub briefly lost its liquor license over $200,000 in unpaid taxes that Cusack eventually paid.
Two years later, Cusack owed Anchorage $50,000 in back taxes and filed for bankruptcy protection for his businesses: the hotel and the Anchorage Aces hockey team. That fall, a bankruptcy court judge converted the case from reorganization to liquidation.
City attorney Pete Hallgrimson said all the hotel's back taxes were paid at foreclosure.
The bankruptcy trustee for the case, William Barstow, said the hotel was returned to the corporation holding the mortgage, GMAC.
The hotel is still wrapped up in foreclosure litigation, a spokeswoman for GMAC said Thursday afternoon. Nothing can be done with the property until the case is settled, she said.
Prism Hotels out of Dallas is maintaining the hotel until the bank decides what to do with it, said Susi Schmidt, a Prism senior vice president.
Schmidt said it is not unusual for a bank to let a hotel sit for a few years. She would not comment on any challenges facing the Northern Lights Hotel or the Anchorage hotel market.
Anchorage gained more than 1,100 hotel rooms since 2002 while the 144-room Northern Lights stood vacant.
Meanwhile, the Anchorage Police Department is enjoying the building as a training ground for its canine unit and SWAT team.
The police suggested the trade after responding to several complaints of vagrants breaking into the property, said Anthony Henry, supervisor for the canine unit.
Police have used the Northern Lights for drug training and other exercises.
"It also creates a nice deterrent," Henry said.
But angry vagrants aren't the only one who have stopped by the hotel, the backdrop for many fun memories.
"We love U Mike," a fan has scrawled on one of the notices posted on a bashed and buckled glass door at one entrance backed with plywood.
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Copyright (c) 2005, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
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