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VOL. 123 | NO. 157 | Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shuttered Motels Head to Court

By Bill Dries

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DOORS CLOSED: Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, left, and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, right, last week announced the nuisance closure of five motels for a history of prostitution and drug arrests at each of the properties. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The owners of five Memphis motels that were closed last week as nuisances under Tennessee law are due in Shelby County Environmental Court today.

The closings by the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office and the Memphis Police Department Organized Crime Unit (OCU) are the latest in a prostitution crackdown called Operation Heartbreak Hotel. District Attorney General Bill Gibbons has urged the City Council to make it harder for the owners and others getting into the motel business to open their doors.

The five motels are Iris Motel at 1950 Elvis Presley Boulevard and a second location at 1371 Ledger Ave.; Summer Motel at 3025 Summer Ave.; Scottish Inn at 4000 Lamar Ave.; and 78 Motel at 3896 Lamar.

Heavy activity

At a press conference Thursday outside the 78 Motel, Gibbons described it as “perhaps the most active prostitution location in the entire city of Memphis.” Ten to 20 prostitutes were on the property every night, according to OCU officers who worked undercover as part of the investigation.

The nuisance complaint to be considered today by General Sessions Court Judge Larry Potter allege that “given the open and rampant manner in which prostitution occurs at the motel, it is clear that management knows of the problem. … The motel has profited from the business associated with the prostitution trade occurring at, on and near the premises.”

From May 2007 to May 2008, Memphis Police have been called to the 78 Motel 106 times for prostitution, drug-related crimes and violent crimes. They’ve also made 39 prostitution arrests at or near the motel since April 2007, according to the court filing.

“We are not going to let property owners and managers of properties in this community operate in a way where illegal activity occurs on a regular basis,” Gibbons said. “They will be held accountable.”

None of the five properties had a current use and occupancy permit from the city. The permit is part of maintaining and enforcing the city code for what buildings can be used for and noting and correcting violations including health and safety standards.

Gibbons and city code enforcement officials said the permits became outdated as the properties changed hands over the years. When the motels were closed last week, code enforcement inspectors found numerous health and safety code violations.

Proper channels

Gibbons, who is a former City Council member, urged the council to make it more difficult for the five motels to reopen once the nuisance cases run their course.

“In order for a motel to have a use and occupancy permit, they first have to have a special use permit to operate as a motel or hotel,” he told The Daily News. “A lot of motels and hotels are able to get the City Council to waive that requirement. … I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think they need to go through the normal process with public hearings and public notice. … We’ve had some real problems with some motels in this community that are not held to that process.”

An example is the Lamplighter Inn at the corner of Bellevue Boulevard and Lamar where prostitution has been a problem for decades as owners have come and gone. The most recent owners, who were hauled into court by Gibbons earlier this year on a nuisance complaint, were able to get such a waiver.

But Gibbons said not every motel or hotel owner should have to go before the council.

Gibbons’ office supported a waiver for the new owners of the Royal Inn in the 3600 block of American Way. It was one of the other motels shut down by Gibbons’ office and police the same day that the Lamplighter and two other motels on Bellevue were closed.

“We agreed not to oppose the waiver granted by the City Council in return for the Royal Inn agreeing to install at its expense (MPD) Real Time Crime Center cameras,” Gibbons said. “It’s our position that all of these establishments ought to start that process all over in order to reopen because at the present time they don’t have the necessary permits to operate.”

Operations like Heartbreak Hotel aren’t meant to close the lower-rate motels, Godwin said, but to encourage the growth of legitimate businesses in the neighborhoods.

“These are hubs for prostitution, for drugs,” Godwin said of the five motels closed last week. “How are they able to get by with what they are doing?”

Ursula Roberts and Christina Williams had been wondering the same thing. They live in a nearby neighborhood just off the busy highway.

“It’s quite easy to tell who is who,” Williams said.

“Nobody knows it’s there except the hookers and the pimps,” added Roberts, who also makes note of license plates of unfamiliar cars. “All these men from Mississippi, we know they don’t live on our street.”

Tourist trap

Roberts said there are tourists coming to Memphis who see the motel locations on a map and room rates that look like a bargain and book it without having any way of knowing what they are walking into.

“They need to shut all of them down on Lamar and fix it up,” she said. “(Mayor Willie) Herenton needs to step up, fix up Lamar so when all these visitors come in, they’ve got something nice to look at instead of a bunch of hookers and pimps.”

She even offered to work at a state Welcome Center if one is built on Lamar.

“We talk about how we want to bring more tourists to Memphis,” Williams said. “How can we do that?”

Those who have visited for legitimate reasons have been quick to post online their experiences.

A description posted by the 78 Motel on the Web site www.travbuddy.com reads, “The Motel 78 provides all of the amenities budget conscious shoppers expect and a location close to fun spots that vacationers seek.”

Hotel user reviews on another Web site, www.ebookers.com, tell a very different story.

One comment from a year ago made no mention of prostitution, but concluded, “I would not suggest this place to my worst enemy.”

Another review on the site read, “This hotel is a dump. Dirty towels in room. Room dirty. Rooms rented by week and month some unsavory people there. Next to a strip joint.”

A review on www.orbitz.com from May reads, “This was a huge mistake, which was nothing short of a nightmare.”

PROPERTY SALES 41 308 2,265
MORTGAGES 47 379 2,607
BUILDING PERMITS 128 1,018 6,068
BANKRUPTCIES 53 255 1,787