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'The poster child for blight': Tucson icon crumbles

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Photo: Video by kgun9.com

'The poster child for blight': Tucson icon crumbles

By Kevin Keen. CREATED May 13, 2013
SOUTH TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - Broken. Boarded up. A blight! Hundreds of thousands drive by it every week so why hasn’t the city done anything about the "eyesore" that is the Spanish Trail Motel? It’s an historic site marked with decades of memories followed by years of visible neglect. KGUN9 investigates.
Back in the Day
They say you can't tell the story of the Spanish Trail Motel, off I-10 in South Tucson, without the music of the Lalo Robles Orchestra.
“Very romantic. Very crazy sometimes,” said Olivia Lorona, a manager at the hotel starting in the late 70s.
KGUN9 got a group of Robles’ fans together to talk about the place where his big band boomed.
“It was a house for a lot of people,” Lorona said.
“Every weekend. New Years. Christmas. Birthdays. Weddings,” added Robles’ daughter, Marta.
The place had a grand entrance, ballroom, bar and Olympic-sized pool.
“It was like happy hour all the time,” said Mary Ann Rosas, who frequented the motel.
“Then, you know, if you had one margarita too many or beer, you could stay in one of the rooms,” Henry Vega laughed.
That was then -- the 60s, 70s and 80s. Now, the place is boarded up and fenced in.
“Sometimes I cry when I go through there,” Lorona said.
“It looks terrible,” said one man in the neighborhood. “It looks like a junkyard right in town.”
From the street its on -- East Benson Highway -- the buildings are visibly crumbling, with some boarded up and broken windows and a roof caved in. The sign is falling apart and lets passersby know little about what used to be there.
“If you ever have one of those apocalyptic films at the end of the world, well, that would be pretty much be it right there,” one passerby said.
A man named Dennis Luttrell owns the place, according to the city and the leasing office of the apartment building office on the same property. Property records list IBV, LLC as the entity in charge.
Records show Luttrell bought the motel in 1992. He’s also behind the abandoned gas station, junkyard and apartment complex around the vacant motel buildings on the same land.
“It's become one of those landmarks you don't want to have,” said Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce, adding it’s “the poster child for blight.”
“It's right on a major thoroughfare and it's in a total state of disrepair,” Varney added.
DOT records estimate around 90,000 vehicles drive by on the interstate daily.
“Doesn't exactly give the kind of image that we all would like the city to present,” one passerby said.
The Owner
KGUN9 tried to talk to Luttrell by calling, emailing and stopping by. Weeks passed and Luttrell’s staff stated he refused to talk.
During one visit to the property, the property’s maintenance manager approached the KGUN9 crew.
“Dennis owns the property,” the man said. “But he's got special instructions.”
Reporter Kevin Keen asked, “What are those special instructions?”
“Don't let anybody photograph or draw,” he answered.
Keen explained the crew was standing right next to the street, which is perfectly legal.
“All right. But I gotta call the cops,” the man replied. He ultimately did not.
To get a better look at the property, a KGUN9 photographer took a helicopter ride over the property.
The video shows abandoned cars, trucks and semis along with piles of junk. The Olympic-sized pool is empty, except for some murky water. The roofs of some buildings are caved in.
The City
KGUN9 found out it's illegal to leave a building like this for so long. City code allows a property owner to board up windows and doors for no more than six months.
South Tucson City Manager Enrique Serna wrote to KGUN9 the owner “has clearly been in violation" of the rules.
“I'm really, really bothered by it,” Serna said, “and have been for quite awhile.”
Still, the city hadn't taken official action against Luttrell, such as sending an inspector to his property.
“You've got to get on the property to be able to actually look at and determine notices of violation,” Serna explained.
So, why haven't officials dropped by for a look-see? Serna said the city’s priority has been making sure rental homes are up to code first.
Property records show Luttrell owns other vacant and boarded up properties around town. He’s gotten a ticket for letting weeds and trash build up and, in Tucson, a ticket for leaving another building boarded up for too long.
The Future
But Serna said the Spanish Trail Motel will now move up the to do list and the city staff are attempting to take action.
After KGUN9’s investigation started, a dumpster showed up on the property and at least one full one was hauled away. The maintenance manager said they're starting to clean the place up.
Still, KGUN9 couldn’t find out what -- if anything -- will happen to the place.
Keen asked Rosas, “Would you be torn if it was torn down?”
“Well, not really because everything has its beginning and its end,” she answered. “But the memories will always be there.”
“It would be great if they would revive it,” Vega said. “Make it as beautiful as it was.”
Photographer: Chris Miracle