Matt Driscoll

Notorious Tacoma motel shut down again. The city needs to take bold action this time

The Morgan Motel at 7301 Pacific Ave., seen here in May 2017.
The Morgan Motel at 7301 Pacific Ave., seen here in May 2017. News Tribune file photo

A “closed” sign hangs on the office door of the Morgan Motel on Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue.

There’s no telling how long it will be there. If the city has its way, it will be a while.

The infamous motel has long struggled with a history of drugs, prostitution and crime.

Its latest troubles make one thing painfully clear: It’s long past time for the city to step up and try something bold and new at the Morgan, because the status quo isn’t working.

The Morgan’s low points are well documented.

In May 2017, under its previous owner, the motel at 7031 Pacific Ave. was temporarily closed. As The News Tribune reported at the time, police had received 171 calls for service related to criminal activity there since January 2016.

Then, in December 2017, the Morgan was again shuttered and its business license temporarily suspended. This time, high levels of methamphetamine contamination were found.

In 2018, the motel was allowed to reopen — with its owners agreeing to play by the rules, and police and officials from the city’s tax and licensing division agreeing to visit regularly to check for compliance.

While there appears to have been a honeymoon period, Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said that the Morgan has once again devolved into “a busy place.”

Most recently, on April 15, Tacoma Police executed a search warrant related to drugs, according to Cool. Four people, including one of the motel’s new registered owners, were arrested and charged with crimes.

During the search, Cool said “various drugs,” including “heroin, crack and meth were located.”

It was the 17th time since January, according to Cool, that police had been called to the property.

Now, according to Danielle Larson, a Tacoma tax and licensing division manager, the city wants the Morgan to stay closed for at least a year.

Larson said a summary suspension of motel’s business license was issued on April 18. Because of a stipulation in city code that bars a business’s owner from applying for a new license for at least a year under such circumstances, the city is requesting that the summary suspension be “affirmed and that the motel not be allowed to operate for at least 12 months.”

Larson ultimately expects a decision on the Morgan’s fate from a designated hearing officer with the city’s finance department to come by the end of the month.

Once it arrives, the decision may be appealed to the city Hearing Examiner.

Attempts to reach the Morgan’s owner were unsuccessful.

City Councilman Chris Beale represents the district where the Morgan Motel is located. Beale said, whatever happens, it’s time for a new approach.

“I am hopeful that results in a break in service with the motel that can allow the city and the current owners to discuss next steps,” Beale told The News Tribune via email in response to questions posed by the paper. “While I do not want to interfere with the license suspension process, I say that I firmly believe the only way this all stops is for the city to step up and purchase the property to abate the ongoing issues.”

Beale added that he has “asked the City Manager to research that as a possibility and outline possible outcomes we would gain from acquiring the property.”

Beale envisions several potential outcomes from such a deal, including creating “a well-managed permanent supportive housing project … or a multi-story affordable housing project, with a possibility of community meeting space on the ground floor.”

It’s probably too early to tell how feasible such a deal might be. In 2017, as part of the city’s response to its declared homelessness emergency, the city looked into buying the former Calico Cat Motel and turning it into short-term transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness.

The price proved a hurdle too high to clear, and a deal never materialized.

That doesn’t mean the city was wrong to try, and as history has now shown time and time again, it would be right to try again with the Morgan.

Beale says constituents in the area are “simply exhausted” from all the ongoing issues.

Enough is enough.

“We have so many dedicated and committed neighbors that are trying their hardest,” Beale said. “We are losing really good people that live here. They tell me all the time, ‘I’m gone the first chance I get.’”

Beale also said the neighborhood is “losing social capital,” because “we’ve gained the unfortunate reputation of being extremely unsafe” and for being an area of town “you don’t want to live in.”

“Every time the motel is closed, I see more families walking around, and the neighbors notice,” Beale added, noting that crime appears to lessen and “the streets appear and seem safer.”

This might be hard for the city to pull off. It will surely take money, perhaps quite a bit of it, not to mention time and the political will to make it happen. None of those will be easy to muster.

But compared to the alternative, which is likely more of the same?

It’s a no-brainer, for a neighborhood that deserves better and a city that should finally find a way to deliver it.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.