City keeping an eye on Windom motels

The Aqua City and Metro Inn motels are coming under close scrutiny by the city of Minneapolis, spurred by increasing complaints in the Windom neighborhood.

A city inspection this fall has yielded new promises from the owners to clean up the motels at 5739 and 5637 Lyndale Ave. S., although police and city inspectors say conditions have vastly improved from a decade ago. “They know they have issues, but they want to reengage with the neighborhood,” said Amanda Vallone, coordinator of the Windom Community Council (WCC).  

Ninety-two people turned out for a Windom neighborhood meeting earlier this fall. They complained of hotel guests throwing beer cans out of windows, and a constant flow of people from the motels approaching surrounding homes to ask for cigarettes and other things. One resident said she witnessed four drug deals in the nearby alley. 

“I see people come out the window and jump the fence,” said resident Lindsey Bauer, requesting a better privacy fence. 

In response, officials from the city department of health, regulatory services, police department, and state fire marshal’s office arrived at the motels unannounced for an inspection last month. They documented the condition of the property, and commanded the owners to remove litter and debris, cut tall weeds, replace missing window screens, repair or remove old radiators, remove mold buildup and clean the hotel room walls.

“I think I have their attention,” said Pat Hilden, district supervisor of Regulatory Services.

City staff are now analyzing police calls and neighborhood complaints, and they plan to negotiate new business license conditions for both motels.

Despite all of the recent complaints, city staff say the motels are in much better shape than in 2002, when more than 100 residents signed a petition regarding the motels. Police reports at the time confirmed that narcotics and other criminal activities occurred on an ongoing basis. 

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Paul Hatle has worked with the motels since 2004. He said it’s been quiet, aside from a couple of recent high-profile incidents last summer — one motel guest threatened to blow up the building, and a guest who was denied from staying at the motel went on to carjack a vehicle. 

“When I first started taking it over, there was a lot of drug dealing, prostitution and livability crime around the hotels. … It was pretty apparent that a lot of people were loitering around and drug dealing,” he said. “It’s a lot better. … [The owners] take a lot of pride in their business, and they don’t want this stuff going on.”

The motel owners — two brothers, each of whom own one of the hotels — say they are living onsite with their families, and they are continually working to improve security. Some of their security upgrades were mandated by the city in 2003. Surveillance cameras are installed throughout the property. They now use electric locks on the doors — before, when someone lost a key, anyone who found it could gain access to a room. They collect photo IDs from every new renter, and they use a computer system that flags any guest who has created a problem in the past. Aqua City and Metro Inn share information on the same system, so a problem guest at one motel is also barred from renting at the other. No visitors are allowed after 9 p.m. And the motel hires Hatle, an off-duty police officer, to work a couple of hours at a time, running license plates and conducting background checks on request.

“Most of the problems I have are people walking on Lyndale,” said Aqua City owner Mohammad Bashir, explaining that many people migrate to the area from a nearby halfway house and two apartment buildings. “I am being bothered by the same people who are constantly up and down the street, asking for cigarettes or a dollar from my customers. It’s a bother for me too.”

The motels didn’t always have the notoriety attached to them today. Windom neighbors said the motels once boasted a popular café, and kids from the community played in the swimming pool. 

“In the 90s — it wasn’t that long ago — it was a community gathering place,” said WCC President Pat Soulak. “They were really nice hotels.”

Members of Windom’s executive committee said  they were encouraged by a recent meeting with the owners.

“It was interesting. They gave a different perspective,” said Vallone. “A lot of the issues the residents are having, they are also having. … They do background checks on anyone who seems suspicious.” 

Bashir said the motels’ location off the highway makes it a prime spot for cops to pull over speeding vehicles. The flashing lights aren’t related to motel activity, but the perception still works against the motels, he said. 

“Lyndale is a very busy street, and I cannot control the traffic on it,” he said. 

Crime Prevention Specialist Amy Lavender said police dealt with one narcotics case on motel property in July this year, and issued Metro Inn a nuisance letter related to the incident. Recently, however, she said officers spent two weeks blanketing the area and didn’t uncover drug dealing. 

“They were trying to stop everything that moved,” she said. “They didn’t observe anything out of the ordinary.”

She encouraged residents to catch plate numbers and be quick to call 911 if they are suspicious of a vehicle. 

As the city negotiates new license conditions for the motels, Windom residents expect to see Bashir and his brother make regular appearances at neighborhood meetings. Board members are also thinking about involving nearby apartments in the discussion to improve safety. 

“The city is still working hard on it, and the neighbors are trying to work hard on it too,” Lavender said. “That’s what I want.”

Reach Michelle Bruch at [email protected]