It’s hard for anyone to see the real situation at the old Pawnee Hotel, especially since the place has been closed for four years.
With the building locked up, it is virtually impossible to see past the cracked windows.
The outside of the building certainly does not give a good impression, yet many of us knew what it was like inside. We experienced the spacious décor of the first floor lobby, the cute dining room and the storied upstairs ballroom.
For years, some people have envisioned a restored Pawnee Hotel downtown, with nice apartments upstairs and small retail shops on the first floor.
That has happened in other places. Hotels like the Pawnee were built all across the country in the early 20th Century, including Grand Island and Hastings, Nebraska.
Others believe the old Pawnee hotel is so decrepit that only something drastic – such as demolition — would be an improvement.
Before we start throwing out dreams and making plans, it’s good to take a better look at the situation.
I’ve been combing through the Bulletin’s archives all day.
As most of us know, the eight-story hotel opened in 1929.
As many people don’t know, it was built of concrete – walls, floors and ceilings. It is structurally strong.
The utilities, however, are another story. They are 88 years old.
The hotel struggled financially for decades before it closed.
It served people with behavioral and emotional disabilities for nearly 20 years as an assisted living hotel.
In 2007, the owners in California tried to sell it, after the city had stepped up to help pay back taxes.
Despite the help, the owners still owed $75,000 in taxes.
There was no eager buyer. The California owners turned it over to a not-for-profit operation headed by long-term employee Sandy Schade, which picked up the tax obligation.
Local investors stepped forward with emergency funds and a new board of directors was formed – the Pawnee Assisted Living Corporation.
The hotel provided people with behavioral and emotional disabilities with single rooms – something rare in mental health care, making it a good fit for many residents. And, it was the only facility in this part of the state that could house a large number of emotionally disabled people under one roof.
The last IRS income tax form that the Pawnee filed, in 2011, showed a 3.8% loss — a percentage that is not-all-that uncommon for any business during tough times.
Pawnee Hotel residents received about $1,100 each month from SSI/Social Security – most of which went to pay for their room, meals and personal expenses. There was not enough revenue for the Pawnee staff to do much more than “fix it”, instead of making major repairs the building needed.
The hotel’s struggle became obvious to the public in 2012 after inspections by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which showed problems with sanitation, maintenance and record keeping.
However, those problems were not overwhelming.
HHS restored the operating license the following March, after no further deficiencies were found and employees made a good faith effort to improve.
At about the same time, an Omaha developer said he could put together the money to renovate the hotel, even if it would cost millions. But there was one condition — the hotel had to continue to offer assisted living care to qualify for grant money and to pay a small share of the costs of restoration.
The developer, John C. Foley of Central States Development, said since 1998, his company arranged financing for more than 20 building renovations, creating nearly 1,000 living units for the homeless, disabled, elderly and people on low incomes.
Foley had a bona-fide idea, but it didn’t move ahead, because by then, the assisted living operation was falling badly behind.
Paychecks were frequently late during the last two years of operation. During the last year, Schade said she skipped her own paycheck about half the time.
Many employees complained about late paychecks, yet many also said they loved the satisfaction of helping others. Their charitable spirit, as much as anything, kept the place operating.
In the final months, Schade sometimes carried a paint can with her as she went about the day, touching up where it was needed.
The second of two boilers for the heating system quit working in the winter of 2012, which dealt a serious blow. The aged boiler was well beyond the fix-it stage. The staff and occupants got by temporarily with space heaters. Schade called a public meeting of community leaders, but no one stepped forward with a plan to save the operation.
Shortly before the hotel closed, Schade said the structure of the hotel remained solid, but utility lines, windows and the elevator were badly worn. Fewer people had the know how to keep the elevator maintained, she said. Drain pipes clogged frequently. The bathtubs did not have overflow protection when absent minded residents forgot to shut the water off.
At that time, I suggested to a few well-connected people in North Platte that it might be wise to study the financial situation in detail, and see if the assisted living operation could somehow be saved.
I said if the Pawnee closed, it might be nearly impossible to open the building again.
Perhaps because my time to contact people was limited, I didn’t find anyone who would be willing to conduct a financial audit, which seemed the necessary first step.
The hotel closed on Sept. 1, 2013.
Currently, the former board of directors shows no sign of activity. Schade, discouraged, does not answer phone calls from city officials or the news media.
If what is left of the old board of directors abandons their claim on the building, the primary ownership interests of record will be held solely by two parties.
One party owns the remaining mortgage of around $50,000, and another owns the back taxes. Those two parties would presumably have to be paid before the title could be secured and awarded to a new owner.
In another 2-3 years, a foreclosure sale will occur.
Cost to refurbish
The costs to renovate the hotel would be substantial. It would be a painstaking, expensive process to upgrade electricity and plumbing, as well as the old elevator.
However, the building’s frame is durable. The Pawnee stands square after 90 years, because it was built to last.
Demolition, were it to happen, would also be expensive. The building would not come down easily. Demolition also presents the danger of collateral damage to adjoining streets and buildings.
Also, if the hotel were demolished, downtown would have another empty lot, quite likely a parking lot, if past demolitions are an indicator.
The renovation could qualify for tax increment financing and historical tax credits. The restoration of blighted and substandard property is the original purpose of TIF.
Perhaps it could be used for housing, maybe dormitory space for students at the community college, or overnight rooms for visiting professionals.
And, the Pawnee could conceivably be renovated in stages, so one part of the operation might generate some income while work on another part is in progress.
It remains to be seen if a developer or development group will emerge with the ambition and skill to take on the restoration.
Here at the Bulletin, and probably for 100 miles around, many of us would like to see it restored.
To those who want to see it demolished, remember, it is easier to tear down than to build up. If the building is gone, another business in that corner of downtown would have to start from scratch. No building has started from scratch downtown for many decades.
What the restoration of the Pawnee would do for the dreams of west central Nebraska residents might be priceless.
A person can imagine.