'The never ending story': How a small town is stuck with a big mess
Looking from the east where the hotel used to stand you’ll see: roofs blown off, brick walls knocked down, palm trees untrimmed and a pool filled with graffiti.
CREATED Jul. 24, 2013
WILLCOX, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - You can't miss it. They call it a scar on the city scape, and neighbors worry it could be permanent. Who's failed to clean up a motel that burned down nearly 15 months ago? Will taxpayers end up on the hook? KGUN9 News investigates.
It started with KGUN9’s investigation into an enormous eyesore in Tucson: the Spanish Trail Motel of I-10. After KGUN9 looked into why the city of South Tucson has let the owner there leave that mess for more than a decade, another viewer called for help. This time: from the city of Willcox.
Enter Willcox from the west and you’ll see: roofs blown off, brick walls knocked down, palm trees untrimmed and a pool filled with graffiti.
“It is a danger zone for us here,” one resident said.
“Ugly. It's not a good representation of our town,” added resident Melissa DiPeso.
A fire did this to the Desert Inn Motel in March 2012, leaving it in a state far from what the quaint motel had been. The place is nearly 50 years old.
The motel was abandoned at the time of the reportedly 12-hour blaze so no one was hurt.
Nearly 15 months later, it remains in its crumbling, sooty and potentially dangerous state. It's a big mess for a small town.
“I’ve been here for 50 years, and this the worst our city has ever looked,” said resident Connie Dunham.
DiPeso emailed KGUN9 asking for help. When folks find out the investigation started, dozens turned up to talk.
“We need to stand together and fight this,” one woman said.
So why isn't anyone getting the job done?
KGUN9 headed to city hall for answers.
“I am very frustrated,” said then-city manager Pat McCourt. He has since retired from city service.
McCourt said the city’s sent the owners lots of letters and is even trying to fight in court but nobody will pay. He stressed that the motel is on private property so the city can't do whatever it wants.
“We gotta get these people to take their responsibility. This is their private property,” he said. “They've got to clean this thing up. That's their job.”
McCourt called the situation "the never ending story" in a citywide newsletter.
McCourt explained two parties are responsible from the city’s perspective. First, a couple: Krishna Singh and Urmila Singh. Second, their mortgage company: California Bank and Trust. He said they've both stopped cooperating.
“Stonewalled,” he said. “Nothing is happening.”
KGUN9 got a hold of the bank, which didn’t answer questions and sent a statement saying it can’t comment on pending litigation "for obvious reasons."
Just what "litigation"? The bank didn't say.
KGUN9 also found the Singhs, who live in Tucson. They not only own the Willcox mess, according to property records, city records show they owe $45,000 in back taxes on it.
Krishna Singh would not be part of an on-camera answer. He said he’s broke and that he wants "nothing to do" with the motel and that the "city can have it."
If taxpayers end up on the hook, they could pay $309,000. That’s the most recent estimate the city’s gotten from a contractor. The site could have hazardous material like asbestos, officials explained, so cleanup costs skyrocketed.
The city values the property itself at only $15,000.
“The [city] council said, 'OK. We're going to bite the bullet and if that's what it was going to take us, that's what it's going to take,’” McCourt said, explaining officials’ willingness to pay to cleanup the spot.
City attorney Ann Roberts -- who is relatively new to the position -- said she'll try to get the courts to figure out who should pay to make this right for Willcox. She plans to take the case to court in about a month.
Citizens can’t wait.
“It is a representation of our community,” said an emotional Shawn Benavides, who’s a local business owner. “This is what they see and I want to live here.”
Benavides and others are also very concerned the motel site is unsafe because of possible asbestos that’s left exposed to the elements. KGUN9 called the state Department of Health Services, Cochise County Health Department, the State Fire Marshal, the state Department of Environmental Quality and other departments.
After KGUN9 called, the Department of Environmental Quality inspected the site and promised to make the results public.
With test results and litigation pending, Willcox is a small town that could be stuck with a big bill for someone else’s mess.
Photographer: Chris Miracle