EDITORIAL: A Taxpayer’s Message to City Hall “Clean Up the Econo Lodge Mess”

by Nat Frothingham; photos by Michael Jermyn

Now that the City of Montpelier is getting ready — this spring — to launch a $3.9 million road, sidewalk, bike land, sewer and water improvement project on Northfield Street — it’s way past time to encourage, even demand, that City and State officials work together and cut through red tape so they can take comprehensive and effective action to clean up the Econo Lodge mess at 101 Northfield St.

And the mess?

At a May 11, 2016 Montpelier City Council meeting and in recent phone calls to The Bridge — residents of Montpelier’s Northfield Street neighborhood expressed mounting frustration with the Econo Lodge mess.

Northfield Street residents complained about the visual blight being visited on the neighborhood from two vacant buildings on the Econo Lodge lot — buildings whose windows are covered up with sheets of plywood and scrawled graffiti — an eyesore that is on display to people walking or driving as they leave downtown Montpelier along Route 12 headed north to Northfield, or as they approach the city from the south on what ought to be a gateway to the capital city.

But the shabby look of the place is only one part of the problem.

An examination of the Econo Lodge records in the City Hall Planning & Development office shows that difficulties with the troubled motel date back at least 10 years. A first violation in the file carried a date of Feb. 2, 2007. Since that time the City of Montpelier and the State of Vermont have continuously cited the Econo Lodge owners and management for problems at the two vacant building on the property. At least four thick file folders in the Planning Office detail a depressing account of inspections, violations, and penalties that urge the motel to make needed improvements and come into compliance with city and state fire, safety, health and maintenance regulations.

In no particular order, the Econo Lodge has been warned and notified, sometimes repeatedly, of trash in vacant buildings, debris including mattresses and abandoned vehicles on the property, holes in the roof, problems with the sprinkler system and electricity and water services that need to be turned off.

In truth, over the years, many of these deficiencies have been corrected by the Econo Lodge management. But the crummy look of the place with sheets of plywood covering the windows and large scrawls of graffiti — remain. On my own brief site visit, I noticed an open second story window and the total look of the place suggests a willful neglect and a flagrant disrespect that is degrading the neighborhood and attacking the look and feel of the state capital.

On May 11, 2016, a group of Northfield residents turned out in force to register their complaints about the Econo Lodge situation at a city council meeting.

One resident worried aloud about suspicious late-night traffic on the Econo Lodge property. What was happening late at night that would draw traffic and cell phone activity in the Econo Lodge parking lot?

Another resident reported that she had repeatedly seen animals going in and out of the abandoned property and that she and as many as six other residents had been bitten by a rabid fox.

Another resident, Bill Perreault, who served on the design review committee in the late 1990s (and was chair of the committee for a time) took issue with the Econo Lodge lighting. He contended the lighting had “inconsistent values.”

Then he went down a list of past and current city officials he had contacted about problems at the Econo Lodge. Those officials included: Former City Housing Inspector Glenn Moore, former City Planning and Zoning Administrator Clancy DeSmet, former City Planning Director Gwen Hallsmith, current City Zoning Administrator Sarah McShane, current City Housing Inspector Chris Lumbra and current Planning Director Mike Miller.

“I’ve gotten pretty much nowhere,” said Perreault about his repeated contacts with officials. “You’ve got to find something to get rid of these buildings,” he said urgently. Then he added, “The graffiti tells me there are kids around the building.” Which worried him.

Then he took his comments in a different direction, saying, “I am personally embarrassed when friends and family come to visit me and they have to look at that property. The City has failed,” he said sternly and then added for emphasis: “completely.”

In a final comment he added, “I know the City doesn’t have much teeth. But you’ve got to do something.”

It was this “much teeth” observation that I observed as almost a theme repeated and repeated again as I talked with important City Hall players, particularly in a recent phone conversation with City Manager Bill Fraser.

Fraser said that yes, indeed, the City does have an Abandoned Building Ordinance and as it turns out, most of the requirements of that ordinance appear to have been fulfilled by the Econo Lodge. The services and utilities have been disconnected in the vacant buildings. The interior of these two buildings has been cleared of trash. The grounds have been cleared of trash. And though there may be gaps, it appears that the two buildings are almost completely secured. Moreover, the vacant building are reasonably watertight, waterproof, rodent proof and in good repair.

Well, on the health and safety hazard front, Planning Director Mike Miller made a comment at the May 11 meeting that deserves close attention.

Miller’s began by stating his belief that it was the City’s job to work with and support landowners and private property rights. Then he made his major point, saying, “That building is a disaster. There is asbestos in that building.”

Miller also said that the State of Vermont has a loan program that offers financial help to property owners in paying for the costs of removing asbestos. Perhaps the Econo Lodge could explore this option, he said.

Summing up, then.

First, there’s been a long history during the past 10 or so years in which the Econo Lodge has been the object of repeated state and city inspections, with notices of violations, some penalties and admittedly some forward progress in meeting city and state fire, building, health and safety codes and directives.

Second, there’s been a sustained and intensifying drumbeat of citizen displeasure and frustration at the blighted appearance of the vacant Econo Lodge buildings along with concerns about neighborhood health and safety.

Out of this local maelstrom, two recent developments may offer some hope to the Northfield Street neighborhood as they call for solid improvement to the Econo Lodge situation.

In a recent phone conversation with Bob Sponable, regional manager of the Vermont State Division of Fire Safety (Barre office), Sponable said state fire officials are working closely with their Montpelier counterparts on what he called “intricate cases.” And the Econo Lodge is such an intricate case.

In the fall of 2016, state and city officials collaborated on a structural evaluation of the two vacant Econo Lodge buildings. The most recent inspection was carried out on Nov. 26, 2016.

Sponable noted that state law requires vacant building be secured. But inspections revealed the following and this is a quote from Sponable: “Various times we’ve been up to inspect that building and that building has been wide open. Doors are unlocked. Doors are still left open.”

Late fall inspections of the two vacant buildings resulted in a directive that the Econo Lodge produce a maintenance plan for the vacant buildings no later than Jan. 20.

But according to Sponable that maintenance plan was never submitted and, “On Jan. 27 an administrative penalty was issued on the owners of COPS INC., the company that owns the Econo Lodge.

“Our goal,” said Sponable, “is to use our administrative penalty as a last resort. To get code compliance.”

“So, that’s one new development — the State of Vermont is taking enforcement action in the Econo Lodge case.

Then, just days ago, Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser released a memorandum from his office saying that he was currently reviewing drafts of a new, much tougher, city ordinance to deal with situations like that at the Econo Lodge. Fraser is looking at ordinances from other Vermont municipalities that could be a guide to Montpelier City Council deliberations in March.

In a phoned-in comment to The Bridge, Justin Turcotte, one of two councilors representing the Northfield Street neighborhood on the city council, made the following statement (in part):

“I walked the site with the owners a couple of years ago and these buildings in the Northfield Street gateway to our city are never going to be inhabitable again. By choosing not to submit a plan for fire safety, the owners are exposing themselves to fines and further regulatory scrutiny.”

We should be looking for carrots, not just sticks, and I believe that there are significant opportunities during the scheduled reconstruction of Northfield Street to remove these condemned buildings and I would encourage the owners or the owners’ agents to reach out to our city manager to explore the possibilities, and start making money on this site again.”

“There’s two ways we can move forward.” Turcotte said in conclusion, one is further regulation, the other is to work together to explore possibilities. But the owner has got to come to the table.”

Here’s what should be done now.

First, city and state officials should continue to work together on enforcement actions in the Econo Lodge case.

Second, the city manager and council should enact a much tougher abandoned/vacant building ordinance with teeth in it.

Third, Montpelier citizens, not just along Northfield Street, but across the city, should put pressure on the city administration and city council to deal completely with the Econo Lodge mess.

Surely as councilor Turcotte suggests, with the road and infrastructure improvements scheduled to take place along Northfield Street this spring, it is more timely than ever to find a comprehensive solution to the Econo Lodge mess.

What follows is a letter from Northampton, Massachusetts resident Kitty Jerome commenting on what it was like as a visitor to Montpelier to spend a single night at the Econo Lodge on Northfield Street.

Greetings,

I am writing after a one-night stay at the Econo Lodge at 101 Northfield Street in Montpelier the night of September 29, 2012.

I am from out of state, but can’t imagine your health and safety codes are very different from those in Massachusetts. This hotel was in such bad repair and seemed so unhealthy and potentially dangerous, I was appalled that it was open (unfortunately, it was not booked full, as was every other hotel within an hour’s drive that night or I never would have stayed.)

It was unclean — form filthy carpeting to broken radiator pipes to peeling wallpaper. It reeked of air freshener.

It felt unsafe — there is no second egress from any room — both the door and window exit to the same hallway. If there was a fire or other danger blocking that hallway, there is no alternative.

It felt unsafe — neither the window nor the door had secure locks or were secure in their frames.

Nothing was functional — this may or may not be a health or safety issue, but could be contributing factors, as the heat was not functional, there was no or very limited hot water (none in the sink for hand washing, the shower provided some which quickly ran out.) Lights were extremely dim (to hide the filth?) which combined with the torn carpet provided multiple “trip” opportunities for my 82-year-old mother traveling with me.

the limited access was blocked — we were told the closest entrance from the parking lot to our room was the far entrance (maybe these are called the back stairs? He didn’t say that.) We went in that door and found laundry carts blocking both the downstairs and upstairs landings of this broken stairwell. There did not appear to be an elevator (ADA?) but had there been I’m not sure I would have trusted it.

Had there been a fire or emergency that night, I shudder to think how I would have managed getting my mom out safely (she is, by the way, a Vermont resident though I no longer am.)

The manager was pleasant but unable to do anything for me. I have submitted a full complaint to the Choice Hotels group through which I found the Econo Lodge — budget is one thing, unhealthy and unsafe is unacceptable. I hope you will think so as well, and conduct an inspection of this facility to determine if it is safe for occupancy.

Thank you for your work,

Kitty Jerome

A Note from Nat Frothingham about Attempts to Contact the Econo Lodge Management

As part of writing an editorial about the Econo Lodge situation, I made two attempts to contact management officials both at the motel in Montpelier and at the corporate offices of COPS, Inc. that owns the motel.

I did contact a man at the (Montpelier) Econo Lodge who identified himself as Dave Shah. Shah provided me with a phone number to call COPS, Inc. After dialing the number, I was advised by a recorded voice that the message answering machine was full and could not take additional messages.

After identifying myself and telling Shah that I was from The Bridge newspaper I asked him to react to an administrative enforcement action being taken by the State of Vermont against the Econo Lodge.

Shah said, “I will have to see what the violations are. If there is something that needs attention, we will take care of it.”

I asked him if he was aware of a needed State-ordered maintenance plan and he said, “No, I am not aware of it.”

Then he said, “I’m not really involved in the day-to-day management of the property. I am more involved with group sales. Maybe you were looking for an ad in your newspaper,” he suggested.

After giving me the COPS Inc. corporate phone number, the conversation ended.

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