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 Faded Northern Hotel in Downtown Billings, Montana Starting to Shine with New Ownership;
Resuscitation Involves Blending its Western History with High-tech

By Jan Falstad, Billings Gazette, Mont.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 21, 2009 --Mike and Chris Nelson, the Billings brothers who bought the Northern Hotel, know they have just one shot to win back customers who used to stay at the historic downtown landmark.

Remaking the Northern into a three-star hotel and restaurant that will compete with the Crowne Plaza a block away will take millions of dollars and just the right launch.

"We have to do it right and we have to do it right the first time," Mike said. "It weighs heavily on my mind."

But that seems to be about the only thing weighing on the light-hearted hotelier's mind. Mike is having a blast doing what would drive some other folks mad. Making the 10-story, 70-year-old hotel attractive again amounts to a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. First, comes a vision.

Successfully resuscitating the Northern involves blending its Western history with the high-tech and sophisticated services demanded by the modern business traveler, Mike said.

After 27 years in hotel and casino management in Las Vegas, including helping to plan Trump Towers, Mike knows what he likes.

"The Flamingo (hotel) is beautiful outside, but I don't think that pink neon inside here would go over in Billings," he said.

So after returning to his hometown of Billings in February to remodel and run the Northern, Mike started dreaming and planning and asking the opinions of more than 150 locals he's taken hotel tours.

Chris Nelson lives in Bozeman where he runs Zoot Enterprises, which offers rapid credit approval services. In January, the Nelson brothers paid nearly $2.75 million, including back taxes, for the Northern whose front doors were padlocked during bankruptcy three years ago.

To get some income flowing, the first priority is to paint and reopen the neighboring parking garage. The parking spots will be rented to downtown workers until the hotel needs the space.

And to make his Bozeman-to-Billings commutes easier, Chris wants a helipad built on the southeastern corner of the garage roof so he can land his Robinson R44 helicopter.

That's 'Mo-Dern' style

This fall, after the asbestos abatement is completed on the first three floors, workers will start transforming the old hotel.

"There's erase-a-tecture and there's architecture. You'll be seeing erase-a-tecture this September," Mike said, quoting a phrase he borrowed from TV.

During the pre-design phase, the Nelsons and a handful of contractors brainstormed for months before scheduling an assembly involving 15 people for six hours.

"You lock everybody in a room and nobody comes out until you get something you like," Mike said. "We basically dreamt the dream."

Dennis Deppmeier, president and principal of A&E Architects of Billings, said the Northern's look will be Modern (pronounced Mo-Dern), a Bauhaus style featuring simple, clean design. Local designer Mitch Thompson is creating the interior style, including a non-cliche Western look.

As immediate past president of the Billings Preservation Society, Deppmeier said he has a special interest in restoring the Northern.

"The thing I'm most satisfied about is to get this guy back online," Deppmeier said. "This town has been missing that old hotel historical option."

Finstad and Mike also serve on the Preservation Society's board, continuing a Nelson family tradition. The Nelsons' late mother, Bernie Nelson, was active in helping restore the Moss Mansion.

Last week, 2-foot-wide plastic tubes snaked through parts of the lobby, sucking air out of secured asbestos removal areas. Contractors poured over pages of preliminary drawings. And on Thursday and Friday, Mike entertained food experts from Denver to plan menus for the former Golden Belle Restaurant and for a separate cafe slated for the corner of North Broadway and First Avenue North.

Other than the food experts, the Nelsons are almost exclusively hiring local companies, including A.D. Creative Group (formerly Advertising Design of Billings), which conducted more than three months of national and local market research.

"It is going to be set up as a business travelers' hotel," said owner Eric Finstad. "The sophistication that business travelers are expecting today in the market is an absolute given."

A.D. Creative's research results spanning 125 pages suggested turning some second-floor rooms into office-for-a-day rentals, basically hotel rooms without a bed. Other ideas include enlarging meeting suites to attract local business conferences and making each hotel room tech savvy.

"You come in and you have your iPod, your BlackBerry, PlayStation 3 and Xbox and they all talk differently," Mike said. "We want to make these all work so you don't spend your whole stay getting your gear going."

The 360 view

The gravel-topped roof offers views stretching from the green hills overlooking the Yellowstone River, to the arid Rimrocks to the north and south to the snowy Beartooth Mountains.

Five monster boilers, none in working condition, engulf the basement. When they are replaced with a modern heating system, Nelson said he hopes the rusting, 1940s smokestack running up the back of the hotel also can be dismantled.

Under the roof lie two mechanical floors housing two 50,000-gallon water tanks and the elevator control system. The electrical switches and gears that move the elevators are so rugged and well-built that Nelson's consultants said they will last another 30 years.

Much of the remodeling money will be focused on the lobby because first impressions and a welcoming greeting make or break a hotel.

"When you open a car door and walk up to the front desk, you pretty much decided if you're going to have a good stay," Mike said.

As early as September, cleanup and demolition will start simultaneously on the top and the ground floors and the workers eventually will meet in the middle.

The once-thirsty customers of the Golden Belle bar are gone, but a full liquor license is in the plans. However, gaming may not return.

"I've had my fill of it after 27 years in Las Vegas," Mike said. "But that doesn't mean I won't change my mind."

Earlier hopes of reopening by next June are unrealistic.

"We have so much work to do, as you can see, and it seems excruciatingly slow while we're doing it," he said. "Then we look back and say, 'Wow! Look what we did.' "

When the Northern's doors are ready to open again in 2011, Mike said he's going to throw a huge community party.

"We want them to reconnect with the Northern again," he said. "And who knows? Maybe we'll even invite The Rolling Stones, if they'll come for $7,500."

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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To see more of The Billings Gazette or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.billingsgazette.net/.

Copyright (c) 2009, Billings Gazette, Mont.

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