Years of problems precede the shuttering of Grand Forks’ Ambassador Motel
When asked if there was a specific incident that precipitated the motel’s shutdown, Lt. Derik Zimmel laughed and asked “when?”
But a different type of public safety worry has thrown the motel’s future into doubt. City inspectors, after a visit last month, alleged a litany of city code violations: blocked egress windows, faulty smoke detectors, broken windows and doors, and exposed Styrofoam insulation in the motel’s basement. City staff told motel owner Kenton McGregor last week that the building was unsafe to occupy, and they stapled bright yellow notices saying the same to each resident’s door.
Amid confusion about when, exactly, residents needed to leave, the city’s head inspector set Tuesday morning as a drop-dead deadline to vacate. Residents do not yet need to remove all of their possessions, however.
Problems at the motel were most recently brought to city administrators’ attention on March 11, when a complaint alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act was logged with police. Following that, the city’s Inspection Department, Fire Department and Public Health Departments inspected the building and documented the laundry list of problems and numerous other violations.
A Herald visit to the motel on Monday afternoon revealed toilets that don’t flush, destroyed doors, broken glass and more. Brandie Baker, a resident there, advises visitors to clean their shoes with insect repellent to avoid tracking bed bugs home with them.
“The floor has wood rot in it, the ceiling leaks,” Baker said as she rattled off the problems in her room at the motel. “My bathroom door is a blanket.”
Beyond alleged safety hazards, the nature of the business itself isn’t clear to city staff: the Ambassador bills itself as a motel, but allows people to stay there for months or years, paying rent as they go, which would mean it’s closer to an apartment building. Either way, it’s allegedly in violation of city policy: if it’s an apartment building, it lacks the proper certificate of occupancy, and if it’s a hotel or motel, it lacks the proper license, according to the letter from city staff to McGregor, which is dated April 8.
After the city inspected the Ambassador at the end of March, McGregor met with the heads of three city departments; he was given a document outlining officials’ concerns about code violations and fire and safety hazards.
McGregor said he “mistakenly” put up the Styrofoam insulation, for which city staff dinged him, and he believed the city took action against the building because they wanted it closed. The motel’s cinder block walls, he said, might be a bulwark against a fire.
“Fire doesn’t spread too well through block walls, I don’t believe,” McGregor said. “You know, the danger’s not there in my mind. … I think the city wanted to close because they’ve had a lot of calls. It’s not fixed up properly.”
McGregor said a number of factors led the building to reach such a state of disrepair, including not being able to get workers to go to the motel, and having a busy work schedule during tax season. McGregor works as a certified public accountant. Also, he said, tenants damage the rooms, and that damage often goes unnoticed. McGregor said he leaves most of the day-to-day decisions about the place to his son Tyler McGregor, who is the manager.
“It’s in disrepair because people have no respect for it, they don’t care,” the elder McGregor said. “They beat the crap out of stuff and we don’t always know about it, because you don’t go into their rooms all the time. It if was a motel, we would.”
Ultimately, Kenton McGregor said it was “cost prohibitive” to make repairs to “every little thing,” because the price of hiring a handyman has increased over the years. Still, Tyler McGregor said they did have money to make repairs, but getting workers to show up was difficult.
“One day it was about bedbugs and the next day it was like (they) can’t make it out, there’s too many people that are in front us and there’s always other stuff added up,” he said.
When the city declared the building unsafe last week, the notice came as a sort-of surprise to residents there. The motel’s condition is plain to see, but Baker, who lives there with her adult daughter and 2-year-old son, disagreed with the way the city shut down the building. Tenants needed more time to find a new place to live, in her estimation, and communication from the city was spotty. The placards that city workers stapled to each resident’s door last week did not mention a move-out day or time, for instance, and the city did not help residents find a new place to live beyond distributing business cards for the head of Northlands Rescue Mission.
The problems in Baker’s room, she said, had been there for the entire year and a half she’d lived at the Ambassador, and she isn’t sure how it passed prior inspections.
City inspectors only scrutinize a building if it’s newly constructed or has undergone renovations, according to Brandon Boespflug, the head of Grand Forks inspections department.
Grand Forks firefighters, though, aim to inspect each building in town once per year, looking for fire safety hazards such as blocked doors, non-working smoke detectors and malfunctioning sprinkler systems.
But once those violations get noted, businesses have a lot of leeway: immediate concerns to residents’ safety, such as a blocked fire exit, need to be fixed immediately, but business owners otherwise have 60 days to fix any problems, and can meet with city staff to come up with a longer-term plan to address issues. If that doesn’t work, the city can seek to levy a fine, or in the Ambassador’s case, deem it unsafe for occupancy.
Fire Marshall Brian Geatz indicated that the motel’s condition has gotten considerably worse in the past few years. He isn’t sure if the motel had ever been fined.
“Usually they’d, in the past, at least kind of worked with us to try and get these things remedied,” Geatz told the Herald. “But at this last inspection, there were so many things that were immediately dangerous to life safety that we just had to shut it down.”