By Dillon Tabish, 8-29-12
||Caption: The Outlaw Inn sign on U.S. Highway 93 in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
It seems like everyone has a story about the Outlaw Inn, as Christine Mays has discovered over the last year.
Travelers will arrive in the lobby of the hotel from all corners of the country and immediately begin sharing memories of the big events hosted inside the hotel’s expansive convention center, of weddings, class reunions and celebrity sightings.
“Anything that was anything going on in Kalispell happened at the Outlaw,” said Mays, the hotel’s new general manager.
Doug Rauthe, a Kalispell native and former mayor, can still clearly recount the Outlaw’s heydays in the 1970s and 80s.
“It was the premier convention center, certainly for western Montana but probably all of Montana when it was new,” Rauthe said.
Yet the fond stories of the Outlaw seem increasingly stuck in the past tense, and the hotel’s iconic image has been degrading in recent years from disrepair and criminal activity inside its walls. The hotel that has been inextricably tied to the city’s identity over the past four decades is walking a fine line between hope and despair.
Last August Mountain West Bank took over ownership of the Outlaw Inn with a deed in lieu of foreclosure. The previous owners, the Kalispell Hospitality Company, bought the hotel in 2007 with financing from the bank. But “when hard times hit,” Mountain West gained ownership.
The 218-room hotel, built in the early 1970s and expanded over the next decade, is listed for sale for $3.3 million. That’s $500,000 below the appraised value, according to Matt Waatti, a Realtor from Grubb and Ellis hired by Mountain West. The property is 9.29 acres consisting of three lots. The building encompasses 159,000 square feet.
“Our objective at this point is to get it sold,” Mountain West President Brad Buls said. “It’s always been a pretty iconic building in the valley. Our hope is that we can get it sold to somebody who wants to invest in that and turn it back into something great.”
Little interest has surfaced from potential buyers, Buls said, acknowledging that there are challenges associated with the hotel despite its prime location near the heart of town.
“Given the age of the building and what it would take to get it up to code for some of these modern hotel chains, it’s going to take a pretty significant capital investment,” Buls said. “So I don’t know where it’s going to go.”
There has even been speculation that a future buyer might raze the hotel and start over. Buls believes it would make more sense to upgrade the property, but tearing down the building remains a possibility.
“From an investment standpoint I think it would be cost prohibitive to come in and knock that place down,” he said. “That’s a lot of building to have to tear down. It’s certainly a possibility that something like that could happen, but I think the more likely scenario is that somebody comes in and buys it.”
The present situation leaves the Outlaw in a type of limbo. Mountain West enlisted a property management company based in Oregon, TQ Properties, to handle the day-to-day operations. Mays, who started at the hotel’s front desk in June 2011, became the general manager two months ago and oversees a staff of roughly 30 employees.
“We’re hanging in there,” Mays said, adding, “The bank wants the hotel open and running so we are open and running.”
In the competitive hotel business, upgrading to modern standards is imperative. But for more than a decade now the Outlaw has languished in this regard.
“No hotel, no venue, stays viable without major updating. It’s certainly not an attractive place right now,” Rauthe said. “But the exciting part is that the memories the community has of the original Outlaw Inn should define its potential. There’s a ghostly image surrounding what’s there now, and that’s the hope for the Outlaw. It can be a class act – a destination – again. Yet the business model can’t rely on what worked 30 years ago. There has to be a new business model, and truly proven ownership and investors have to be involved.”
Chocolate tasters browse the “professional’s table” during the Flathead County Republican Women’s 2007 Chocolate Extravaganza at the Outlaw Convention Center. File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
The Outlaw’s previous owner announced in late 2010 plans for a three-year renovation that would modernize the property while returning it to its old stature. The plans included interior and exterior improvements and remodeling for the hotel and convention center. But only a few changes surfaced. Mays said the hotel’s staircases were remodeled and carpets were replaced throughout the main building. The lobby received a facelift. But that was the extent of it. The bank has expressed no intention of continuing any renovations.
“Due to the current circumstances we’re at a standstill,” Mays said. “But I believe that if we can give our guests a nice stay in a clean room with friendly, smiling faces at the front desk and make sure these folks have a good stay, then that’s going to keep bringing the guests back.”
Both Mays and Buls said revenues have recently increased compared to last year.
“I’ve been amazed at how steady it’s been,” Buls said.
The Outlaw’s legacy dimmed in the last decade, most notably after one of its primary investors fell from grace.
Dick Dasen Sr., a well-known community leader and prominent businessman who helped spearhead the development of the Outlaw and other successful businesses in Kalispell, was charged with 13 criminal offenses in 2004, including prostitution, sexual intercourse without consent and sexual exploitation of children. In a highly publicized trial that concluded in 2005, Dasen was convicted on four counts of prostitution, as well as sexual abuse of children and promotion of prostitution. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison with 18 suspended and was released in 2007.
More recently, the Outlaw has continued to try to improve its image.
Police are commonly responding to the hotel, specifically the “north wing,” a 60-room section of the hotel where guests can live for an extended period. In the last year police have responded to 113 incidents at the Outlaw’s address, not including traffic stops, according to Kalispell Police Department call records. The incidents have ranged from physical disturbances to criminal mischief. Drug-related crimes are common.
“We’re seeing a wide array of stuff,” said Wade Rademacher, administrative captain for KPD. “We do have a lot of problems (at the Outlaw).”
The average number of police incidents for three other nearby hotels is 28. However, none of those hotels offer extended stay lodging, which is where Rademacher said a majority of the Outlaw’s incidents are occurring.
“Seventy to 80 percent of the people who stay there at the north wing might be no problem at all,” he said. “It might just be the 20-30 percent who are causing the problems.”
The Outlaw’s north wing is managed like a separate apartment complex, Mays said. The rooms are furnished like hotel rooms. Guests qualify for lodging by providing identification and proof of income. A majority of the north wing residents are there on a month-to-month basis, Mays said.
Mays is not aware of how much criminal activity there was before she began working at the front desk last summer, but she believes the number of police responses has lowered “substantially” in the last two months. She attributes the lower crime rate to more families and senior citizens moving in, but admitted that issues still arise.
“As with any apartment complex there is going to be problems or drama or whatever you want to call it,” she said.
Buls said the situation surrounding the north wing has not come up as a significant hurdle for any prospective buyers.
“The hotel has done a good job of keeping that separate of the hotel,” Buls said. “We don’t hear very many complaints about it.”
For residents like Rauthe and Buls, another Kalispell native, the Outlaw Inn embodies a part of Kalispell’s history and identity.
Buls remembers almost every local wedding he’s attended at the Outlaw.
“You don’t have to go back 10-15 years ago, it was the convention center of the town,” Buls said.
Rauthe grew up playing in the cattails and land that would one day transform into one of the most recognizable hotels in Montana. He remembers the hotel hosting major events, like the Northwest Montana Art Show and Auction that featured millions of dollars worth of Western art. He remembers celebrities and politicians choosing to stay at the Outlaw and remarking at how the unique atmosphere seems to fit Montana. It made Kalispell stand out, and became a point of pride for residents.
“All the history, all the activity that went in there, provides a really exciting cast of ghosts from all the memories of what’s went on there,” Rauthe said. “I hope we can do it again. I hope we can make something exciting out of it again.”
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