Sheriff to spearhead community task force on Value Motel

Article describing illegal activities at Hazel Dell site prompts action

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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On the front page of today’s newspaper, you’ll see a fun story about how Amazon.com ranks Vancouver among the most romantic cities in the nation according to buying habits.

The Value Motel sits outside of Vancouver city limits.

And something’s going on there, according to one reporter’s recent observations, but it isn’t all fun and romance.

The 1963 Hazel Dell establishment has long ranked among the most-frequented addresses for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office (in 2009 it ranked fourth, with 384 calls).

And a Feb. 3 article in the Vancouver Voice by reporter Marcus Griffith has prompted county officials to pledge to take a closer look on what exactly is going on behind those closed doors.

Clark County commissioners on Tuesday agreed with Sheriff Garry Lucas’ suggestion to create a community task force.

Lucas said Milt Brown, who owns the property (as well as other parcels on Highway 99), will be invited to participate, as well Haresh Patel, who leases the motel.

Brown did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment, and a message to the motel asking for a manager to comment was not returned.

The task force could include representatives from the health department, code enforcement office, fire marshal’s office and law enforcement, as well as a citizens’ representative, Lucas suggested. He said Commander Keith Kilian of the West Precinct Office would lead the group.

Bud Van Cleve, president of the Northeast Hazel Dell Neighborhood Association, said he and neighborhood activist Doug Ballou sent a copy of Griffith’s article to county commissioners, who passed it along to Lucas.

Griffith, who stayed at the motel on a Saturday night, reported in his cover story, “Short Stay: A night at Clark County’s seediest motel,” that he spoke with motel guests who were open about engaging in prostitution, drug use and underage drinking.

He also wrote that he woke up with new bug bites.

He said he paid $38.37 after taxes for his room; despite the motel’s $21/$23 sign that greets northbound drivers who take the Northeast 78th Street exit off Interstate 5.

He said he was told by a front desk clerk that the motel no longer offers rooms for $21 a night.

Griffith also took photographs of a deteriorated wooden staircase that serves as a fire exit.

Griffith said Tuesday that he approached a lot of motel guests, and some turned down his offer to be interviewed and others agreed to speak with him but didn’t want to be named.

He said it was “largely a mellow place,” and said a sheriff’s patrol car did drive slowly through the parking lot at 2 a.m.

“There’s nothing in the article that surprised anyone,” Griffith said. “The article didn’t bring things to light so much as it provided a nice summary.”

Van Cleve agreed.

“It’s been a bad deal for a long time, and it should not have come to this point,” he said. “It should have been cleaned up.”

Last summer, commissioners approved an incentives package for redevelopment on Highway 99 and its surrounding areas. The plan had been in the works for more than a decade, with residents, business owners, architects, developers and engineers working with county staff and the planning commission to reach compromises on the specifics of design standards and incentives.

Commissioner Steve Stuart said Tuesday that Griffith’s article “paints a really dark picture” of what goes on at the motel.

He said the redevelopment incentives will hopefully work and make it worth it for Brown to revitalize the property or sell to someone who will.

In the meantime, county officials “can make sure that it’s safe, that it’s clean and there are safeguards against illegal activity.”

“But ultimately our goal is to make it more profitable to either upgrade or replace the Value Motel,” Stuart said.

As for the three places that received the most sheriff’s calls in 2009: No. 1, Callaham’s Mobile Estates on Highway 99; No. 2, WinCo on Highway 99; No. 3, Walmart on Highway 99.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.