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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pasco set to spend $1.2M to buy and destroy troubled motel that’s been a hotbed of crime

By Cory McCoy Tri-City Herald

PASCO – The city of Pasco is set to buy a motel notorious for its high crime, and then tear it down.

City officials say the Thunderbird Motel in Pasco was at the center of hundreds of 911 calls in just the first quarter of this year alone.

For several months the city has been working with the owner of the motel to buy the property. The motel has long been considered a nuisance property by the city, but calls to it have only risen over the years as the owner attempted to clean it up.

Mike Gonzalez, the city’s Economic Development Manager, told the Tri-City Herald the city’s priority is the economic revitalization of downtown Pasco.

He began talking with property owner Song Hwang last year as the city looked into spending American Rescue Plan money to help downtown business owners install fire sprinkler systems.

Gonzalez said as they built a relationship, the two discussed what could be done to address the myriad crime issues, and eventually broached the subject of a sale to the city.

Gonzalez said Hwang told him he was considering retirement and, after much discussion, agreed to have an appraisal done. It came back at $950,000.

The city will pay $1.2 million for the property and will then begin working to help transition the long-term residents to new housing.

Gonzalez said that number was reached by taking into account the appraisal value of the property plus projected income from rentals.

He said there are some occupants using housing vouchers, and the city will be working with Benton Franklin Human Services and Tri-City Union Gospel Mission to help residents who need help.

The mission’s homeless shelter for men opened next door to the Thunderbird in 2017.

“We’re really conscious that the Thunderbird serves low- to moderate-income people, but it’s also been a spot that’s been a high source of prostitution, overdoses and crime,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll work with (the owner) and UGM to make sure everyone that wants a place to go, we can find them a place to go. We’re not looking to displace anyone using it for housing.”

According to property records, the motel was built in 1965 and had a 2022 taxable value of about $557,000. Hwang has owned the motel since at least 2007.

Once the sale of the property is closed on, the city of Pasco plans to raze it.

After the motel is knocked down, the city expects to turn the property into expanded parking for the recently renovated Peanuts Park and Farmers Market across the street.

Rising crime

By the beginning of 2022, 911 calls had risen to several every day, said Gonzalez.

Pasco police told the Herald they have received 254 calls already this year, compared to 306 in all of 2021.

In January, police were called 65 times. That jumped to 86 in February and 85 in March.

The most common calls were for noise complaints or disturbances. There were 9 calls for suspicious circumstances, 7 for trespassing, 6 for drugs and 5 for weapons.

In 2017 when Hwang requested a special permit to allow some units to be rented long term, the Herald reported that over the previous five years, Pasco police had received more than 1,400 calls.

Hwang had hoped that by allowing long-term residents to rent units on the second floor, it could reduce crime by having residents on hand to report suspicious activity. That change was denied.

Downtown revitalization

Gonzalez said that as revitalization efforts began picking up steam in downtown Pasco, the crime at the Thunderbird was a point of contention for other business owners in the area.

City Manager Dave Zabell said that the redevelopment of Peanuts Park and Farmers Market meant the city would be losing most of the already limited parking in the area.

“We’ve been looking for an opportunity for parking there,” Zabell said. We knew it needed to be fairly close, and the Thunderbird created a pretty interesting opportunity for that to happen … We’re anticipating a lot of use for that park for larger events over the coming years.”

They hope to have the deal finalized by the time the city hosts its first large event at the park later this year.

The city’s Cinco de Mayo festival on May 6 and 7 will be the first of many downtown events.

Zabell said that within a year and a half, with the completion of the Lewis Street overpass project and demolition of the hotel, residents can expect a new, energized downtown.

“We expect this to be the biggest Cinco de Mayo in probably the history of Pasco,” Zabell said. “I think folks are going to be really excited, there’s a lot of pent up demand about wanting to get out and be with people.”

Zabell said that as the deal nears completion, the population at the hotel will dwindle as stays become less available and community partners help longer term residents find new housing.

They hope to have it completely fenced off and shut down by the end of May, with demolition set for early fall.

Efforts to reduce crime

In 2016, the city codified a chronic nuisance ordinance, which allows it to assess fines and penalties to property owners with inordinately high numbers of calls for service.

In the ordinance, the property owner or manager has the ability to enter a voluntary correction agreement to rectify the issues.

A recent chronic nuisance determination, provided to the Herald by the city, shows that code enforcement officers had been working with the motel to reduce crime, but the owner’s efforts were not enough.

In the March 28 letter, the code officer said a March 24 voluntary correction agreement from Hwang did not propose an acceptable plan of action to reduce crime.

The code enforcement officer said they had not yet seen a permit for a proposed fence around the property, had received insufficient information about hiring of security or what type of new training employees would receive and that the owner’s suggestion residents being encouraged to call police more often was not an appropriate deterrent method.

The letter said that in the four days between the letters, there had been multiple calls about weapons, drug activity and occupants hindering paramedics attempting to provide medical assistance.

Each incident of Chronic Nuisance Activity at the motel could result in a $1,000 penalty for the owner.