Charlotte hopes tearing down an old motel will cut crime. The answer might not be so simple
There’s a pecking order to the dozen motels clustered around the Interstate 85 exit at West Sugar Creek Road. The Economy Inn was at the bottom.
“The hotel wasn't anything. It wasn't brought up to code ... No microwaves, no refrigerators. But it was cheap living for people who could afford it,” Nosakera Morrison said.
Morrison looked out at the Economy Inn from the motel where he lives across Reagan Drive. A child bounced a ball on the breezeway. He said people who had been banned from other motels in the area — or had criminal charges — found a place there.
“It really was like one of those last resorts before you actually end up in a tent,” Morrison said.
A haven for crime
The City of Charlotte just bought the Economy Inn for $4.2 million. The main reason: it was a hotspot for crime in an area where the violent crime rate is about nine times higher than in Mecklenburg County as a whole. The plan is to demolish the motel, add affordable housing and begin to change an environment where crime thrives.
“That was a bad spot for prostituting and crimes, and this and that and the other,” Adrian Ivey, a health care worker, said.
Ivey was checking on her client Tobbi Bryant at Evoke Living, located around the corner on West Sugar Creek. Bryant has lived at the affordable housing development since it opened two years ago.
“I'm trying to make my way. I said, 'I had enough of this.' It's like a war zone. By the grace of God, this is my last year. I’m getting out of here,” Bryant said.
Bryant has heard about the city buying the Economy Inn to help turn around this section of Sugar Creek — one of six historically overlooked areas designated Corridors of Opportunity that the city, neighborhood groups and investors are trying to revitalize. She doesn’t think it’ll have much of an effect.
“Because they’re still going to be over there at the Motel 6,” Bryant said.
But reducing the number of motels in the area is what neighborhood groups, local businesses and nonprofits told city officials they want most.
'Easy and quick money'
These motels were built mainly in the 1970s and 1980s to accommodate travelers along I-85. Police say the motels are an easy stop for people using the interstate as a conduit for crimes like drug smuggling and prostitution.
“Some of the hotels want to make easy and quick money, so that means cutting some corners,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Jason Ellis, a community coordinator.
Ellis has worked in the area for about 20 years. Some motels largely serve families staying for months or years, functioning as housing of last resort. But he says some motels lower the standards for who they allow as guests because there are more hotels than the area can support.
Ellis says some hotels cater to more transient customers and don’t follow the business practices police advise. Those include checking IDs, accepting only credit cards, and moving out loiterers and broken-down cars. Hotel owners say some problems are out of their control.
A new strategy to turn around West Sugar Creek
Police have concentrated a lot of resources on Sugar Creek and I-85 over the years. They've even brought in other agencies such as the FBI to help. City Council member Dante Anderson, who represents the area, says replacing the Economy Inn with affordable housing is the kind of new strategy the area needs.
“No one has really been able to enter this environment and really crack and bust up the activity that occurs over there. I think this is a great first step in doing that. We have a long way to go,” Anderson said.
Three council members voted against the sale last month. Ed Driggs said it’s a good approach, but an expensive one to clean up only 4.5 acres. Council member LaWana Mayfield said the deal amounts to a $4 million payoff for a slumlord with no guarantee they won’t continue to create chaos in the community.
Some housing advocates worry there’s not more of a concrete plan for what comes next — and that too few affordable units will take the motel’s place.
Handing over the keys
The sale went through in late April. Three men who identified themselves as the motel’s owners were handing over the keys to the new property managers employed by the city.
They wouldn’t speak on tape, but one man said they own multiple hotels, and that this one was “the hardest place.” A search of Mecklenburg County records doesn’t show any other properties owned by the individuals or those associated with the LLCs on the deeds.
The Economy Inn is dilapidated. There are rusted railings, peeling paint and boards in place of A/C units. The city picked this motel partly because only about a dozen people used it as a home. A group helping to relocate those residents say the group includes a couple families and some people who worked at the motel.
Other attempts to tackle crime
The Economy Inn backs up to the Hidden Valley neighborhood. Marjorie Parker, who leads its community association, understands the arguments against buying the motel.
“But you had 20 years to fix the problem. So, you are now at a point of where you’re going to throw the baby out in the bathwater. And we're the baby. Hidden Valley is the baby,” Parker said.
The city has tried other tactics to clean up the problem motels, according to a 2020 city report.
For example, the motel now known as the Royal Inn, located on the other side of Reagan Drive, was placed under an injunction for nuisance problems in 2012. The owner ended up selling it in 2018, but it still attracts a lot of crime.
After CMPD met with the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina in 2017 to address nuisance hotels, the owner of a nearby Days Inn was convicted of fraud and conspiracy to launder money through the business. But its ownership stayed in the same hands.
CMPD recently installed cameras at local businesses that link to the department's real-time crime center at police headquarters.
“The city is doing a wise thing about purchasing those hotels and get the community involved on what they want to be so they can make a good thing for the community,” said Jeff Broadie, who owns Just 4-U Barber Styling Academy on Reagan Drive.
There was another attempt to repurpose the Economy Inn. It served as a drug rehab facility in 2016, but that only lasted six months. The city noted that it was a bad location for recovering addicts because of the ready availability of drugs nearby.
Planning for what will replace the motel
Parker has ideas for what could take the Economy Inn's place.
“I hope to see single-family townhomes for sale for primary owners, with perhaps a little grocery store that sells fresh vegetables,” Parker said.
City officials say the plan is to rezone and demolish the motel this summer and, hopefully, get a developer or community organization on board by the end of the year. The city expects to get some money back by selling the land.
The demolition, relocation of residents, and security for the property is paid for by a $1 million grant from the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative. The community will get an update on the city’s plans Tuesday night.
WFAE's Nick de la Canal contributed to this report.