Downtown North Platte’s sleeping beauty, the historic 1929 Hotel Pawnee, just might yet stir to life.
Just two weeks shy of a March 9 deadline, the 90-year-old jewel partly returned to local hands Tuesday. That’s when North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp. filed a document with the Lincoln County Treasurer’s Office transferring the Pawnee’s delinquent “tax sale certificate” to the chamber from previous holder Street Corner Inc.
It’s a first but critical step toward finding a new developer and untangling the fiscal mess left after the one-time assisted-living facility closed on Aug. 31, 2013, chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Person said Wednesday.
The chamber board concluded an agreement on Valentine’s Day to repay the Lincoln investment firm about $48,000 for the Pawnee’s property taxes and interest from 2014 to 2017, said Person and board member William Troshynski, a North Platte lawyer who helped negotiate the deal.
No public funds were used for that repayment, Person said, though the city of North Platte and Lincoln County contribute to the chamber for economic development purposes.
Street Corner was paid entirely from contributions to an “incentive fund” by about 90 private-sector chamber members, he said.
“We tried to approach this thing from every possible avenue to get some of the (financial) issues resolved,” Person added. “In the end, everyone thought, ‘We’ve just got to do it.’ And I think it’s going to serve its purpose.”
Even before Tuesday’s filing, he said, potential developers had shown interest in taking on the estimated $8 million-plus cost — with substantial potential help from available federal, state and local incentives — to restore the National Register of Historic Places structure for business and permanent residential use.
Marvin Planning Consultants of David City urged the hotel’s redevelopment as a “potential catalyst housing project” in North Platte’s most recent housing study, released in December.
The study identified a variety of available grants and tax credits — including those triggered through a recently designated federal “Opportunity Zone” that includes downtown — that Marvin estimated could cut a developer’s project cost by at least half.
One potential developer informally inspected the vacant hotel about two weeks ago, after chamber leaders received permission to enter it for that purpose, Person said.
“It’s amazing how people come out of the woodwork,” he said. Since the chamber reached its deal with Street Corner, “people I’ve reached out to for three years (about the Pawnee) are suddenly willing to talk.”
Street Corner had paid the Pawnee’s delinquent taxes — and earned 14 percent interest under state law — since it acquired the tax sale certificate at a Lincoln County sale in March 2014. The building’s 2018 taxable value was $443,535.
Instead of a potential sheriff’s sale on March 9 — the tax sale certificate’s maturity date — the chamber will move that day to acquire a treasurer’s tax deed securing its share of ownership interest, Troshynski said.
He and Person said the chamber will reach out to Jay A. Mitchell of Manhattan Beach, California, who also has an ownership interest through a “deed of trust” issued in 2007.
Troshynski said the hotel also has been encumbered by several liens for unpaid federal and state taxes and other debts. But he said those debts are owed not by the chamber but by the defunct Pawnee Assisted Living Corp., which owned and operated the hotel in its last years.
When the chamber receives its treasurer’s tax deed, Troshynski said, that should “wipe off the other liens” from the real estate.
Person and chamber board President Dr. Ben Lashley noted that members had vigorously debated what could be done about the Pawnee — if anything — in the 5½ years since the last residents left.
“In the end, we felt it was the right thing to do for North Platte,” Lashley said in a press release Wednesday. “Our sole purpose is to gain some control over positioning the property so that we eventually get it into the hands of an experienced developer, which will redevelop the grand old structure into a useful life once again, sooner rather than later.”
The Pawnee opened to great fanfare as the Hotel Yancey on Oct. 16, 1929, less than two weeks before the Wall Street crash that triggered the Great Depression. It acquired its more famous name on April 28, 1932, after a community-wide contest.
It’s one of four buildings in North Platte’s historic downtown built by Keith Neville, Nebraska’s governor from 1917 to 1919. The Pawnee, the Paramount Building across East Fifth and the Fox Theater — today’s Neville Center for the Performing Arts — still anchor what was long known as the “Neville Corner.”
The Neville family, which also built the Keith Theater building before World War I, owned and operated the Pawnee until September 1973. It remained open as an assisted-living retirement center after its sale.
Renae Brandt, secretary of the North Platte Downtown Association, reacted ecstatically to Wednesday morning’s news that the chamber had acquired the Pawnee’s tax sale certificate.
“My first reaction was shock, because I was hopeful something would happen” before the certificate matured, she said. “I knew there was something going on” around the time of the informal inspection, “because I drive by the Pawnee every day and there were lights on and there was a cord from a generator going into the Pawnee.”
Blakely Enterprises Inc., where Brandt works as accounting manager, has already been involved in the historic downtown’s “renovations in progress” as owners of the Dixon and Mutual buildings. Both have received facelifts in the last year since North Dewey Street’s 1970s sidewalk canopies were removed.
“The Pawnee is such a swing building” that can either lift up or drag down the rest of downtown, Brandt said. “It’s by far the largest building and has a significant history.
“If you can get it active with people going there and businesses going there and people living there, it makes downtown really vibrant.”
Though months of work remain to revive the Pawnee, Person said, the steady advocacy of many North Platte residents helped encourage chamber leaders to facilitate the historic hotel’s revival.
“Because we have a board that represents 600 business partners, we want to respect the fact that we’ve used some of their hard-earned dollars to make this work,” he said.
“But if a chamber and a development corporation isn’t out there advocating for these kinds of things, we’re not doing our job. We should be out there advocating for these things. And if we’re not, shame on us.”