City scrutinizes Gopher motel

Michelle Moriarity

More than two hours of testimony from the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge’s former manager highlighted the second session of a public hearing to determine the fate of the motel.
The hearing will help determine whether the city will revoke the motel’s license because of recurring criminal activity and alleged mismanagement.
Arlo Johnson, who was terminated from his position as consulting general manager of the motel in September, told a panel of Minneapolis City Council members Tuesday afternoon that the lack of communication between the city and motel management prevented him from making the changes necessary to satisfy city officials.
“It was too late and not enough,” Johnson said. “How did we know we had problems? We never got a phone call. We never got letters.”
The city’s record of 911 calls placed from the motel, Johnson said, helped fuel the unnecessary investigation against its owners.
More than 300 emergency calls from the motel have been logged in the past two and a half years, said Assistant City Attorney Henry Reich.
Johnson said that as a manager, he encouraged motel employees to call 911 if they believed they or anyone else was in danger.
“There’s a number of reasons to make 911 calls,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody, or any guest, to feel endangered.”
The motel has been under public scrutiny since police conducted a drug raid on April 22. Since then, the city has investigated the motel’s history, which includes instances of alleged prostitution, drug dealing and a 1989 homicide.
In June, city licensing investigator Julie Casey notified Johnson of a technical advisory committee hearing, which is a standard first step towards license revocation. During that hearing, city officials reviewed all reported complaints against motel owners.
After hearings are complete, the panel, which is composed of three City Council members, will make a recommendation to the council concerning the future of the establishment. The next hearing has not been scheduled, but is expected to take place in early November.
“It took the drug raid and the (preliminary) hearing to get their attention,” said Ward 2 Councilwoman Joan Campbell. The motel falls under Campbell’s jurisdiction.
Johnson also testified he had no knowledge of the city’s complaints before the June hearing.
He said after that hearing, motel management began to tighten security inside and around the motel by installing additional surveillance cameras and hiring off-duty police officers as security guards for 10 to 15 hours per week.
Motel co-owner Elmer Salovich said his original intent in purchasing the motel was to provide affordable lodging for University visitors. But because of what he called a “shift in the drug culture,” the motel became a target for drug dealers in 1996, said Salovich, who is an assistant professor in the University’s Medical School.
In an effort to change the motel’s reputation, Salovich said he is planning major renovations and has hired new management. Preceding Johnson’s termination, General Manager Roman Sowada was released from his position in August.
Salovich added that there was never any indication that the city wanted motel management to change their policies.
City officials, however, said the motel’s long-term lack of action has led them to believe that license revocation is their only alternative.
“We have been in contact with Gopher motel since 1995,” Reich said, “and we’re not going to (negotiate) now.”
In spite of the disagreement with the city, Salovich and Johnson agreed that they have not encountered opposition in their neighborhood.
“I always felt we were a very good neighbor,” Johnson said, noting that he permitted members of nearby fraternities and sororities to park in the motel’s parking lot.
Indeed, some neighbors are indifferent to the motel’s presence. Ed Palmer, treasurer of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, said he has not encountered any major problems with the motel’s inhabitants.
“If anything, it’s kind of entertainment, what goes on over there,” he said.
During a drug raid in April, Palmer said, undercover police cut through the fraternity’s parking lot and hid in a nearby sorority house. But overall, it’s just an old neighborhood building, he said.