Real estate deal closes for Hotel Pawnee, clearing the way for restoration

The Hotel Pawnee stands on the corner of East Fifth Street and Bailey Avenue in October 2019.

Two days after its quiet 90th birthday, downtown North Platte’s historic Hotel Pawnee was given a present — its long-awaited second chance.

Jay Mitchell, a California developer specializing in historic restoration, closed the real estate deal that was pending since July by wiring the rest of his $100,000 payment to acquire the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp.’s interest, chamber President and CEO Gary Person said Friday.

“What a neat thing that on the 90th anniversary of the grand opening of the facility it breathes new life,” he said.

Mitchell, who has held a “deed of trust” since buying the Pawnee’s defaulted mortgage about four years ago, said he’ll arrive in about a week to pick up the keys to the eight-story anchor of the “Neville Corner” at East Fifth Street and Bailey Avenue.

“We’ll start work the day we arrive,” he told The Telegraph, beginning with restoring the first-floor business spaces so they can qualify for a “certificate of occupancy” from the city of North Platte.

Under his deal with the chamber, Mitchell has six months to restore the business frontage in order to recover $25,000 of his $100,000 purchase of the chamber’s interest. He sent in that $25,000 several weeks ago, Person said.

Restoration of the second-floor Crystal Ballroom will follow, Mitchell said, with plans for renovation and future uses of the upper-floor rooms yet to be settled.

He said the ballroom — site of the Oct. 16, 1929, dedication dinner and local and statewide occasions for decades afterward — “needs a lot of work” but is in good structural shape.

The ceiling over the first-floor kitchen has suffered water damage, but “it’s not even that difficult” to fix, he said. The upper-floor hotel rooms likewise “are mostly original” and have held up well, he added.

Mitchell, who lives in Manhattan Beach, California, said he has restored several historic structures in that state, Kansas and his native Oklahoma. The Pawnee will be his first Nebraska project.

Past restorations have included the former City Hotel in Sonora, California, built during the Gold Rush era in 1852 and now home to a bar and restaurant with upstairs rooms. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mitchell called himself “a careful protector” of the buildings he acquires, especially of their historic features. “From what I can see of the Pawnee, it’s not much altered in any way at all.”

Originally named the Hotel Yancey, the Pawnee received its better-known name in April 1932 after a community-wide contest drawing 184 entries.

The family of former Gov. Keith Neville, who built the Pawnee and the neighboring Fox and Paramount theater buildings, owned the hotel until September 1973.

It then operated — but also slowly declined — as a retirement hotel for 40 more years until closing its doors.

The hotel was listed on the National Register in 1985 along with the neighboring Fox Theatre — today’s Neville Center for the Performing Arts — which was built at the same time and opened on Nov. 24, 1929.

Mitchell became aware of the hotel through North Platte news stories soon after the now-defunct Pawnee Assisted Living Corp. closed it on Aug. 31, 2013, he said.

As he studied the hotel and its history, “I thought it looked like a perfect fit to where I could bring some of my qualities that have to do with historic renovation,” he said.

The chamber acquired a Lincoln County “tax sale certificate” in February from Street Corner Inc. of Lincoln, restoring partial local control to the once-proud structure.

The chamber secured a “treasurer’s tax deed” to the hotel in August, a month after signing a “memorandum of understanding” with Mitchell.

Person praised the chamber’s board for raising $48,000 from its members last winter to acquire Street Corner’s interest before its certificate matured.

Another critical role was played by North Platte lawyer and chamber board member William Troshynski, who donated his time first to untangle the Pawnee’s debts and liens, using a 2017 analysis for the chamber by Lincoln lawyer Kent Seacrest.

Troshynski then led the chamber’s talks with Mitchell, who held a “deed of trust” from buying the mortgage from First National Bank about four years ago.

“We’re very happy that it’s come to a conclusion,” Person said. “It wouldn’t have happened without our board of directors saying we need to get this done.”

Mitchell said he had reached a sale agreement with Pawnee Assisted Living Corp. soon after the hotel closed — only to see the deal fall through when the latter corporation disbanded.

Going back to that time, buying the Pawnee has “certainly been the longest closing that I’ve ever done,” he said.

But when First National Bank put the hotel’s defaulted mortgage up for sale, he bought it “so it couldn’t go into foreclosure” that way, Mitchell added. “If that happened, it could have gone into the wrong hands.”

He said he’s open to making use of at least some of the federal and state tax incentives available to reduce the $8 million restoration cost estimated in last year’s North Platte housing study.

But such incentives “aren’t something that we need to start,” Mitchell said.

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