Rough Trade:

Samish Way hotels a magnet for 911 calls


Delfina Delgado, 17, lives in a room at the Villa Inn with her father and her 6-month-old son, Nathaniel. Delgado said life as a resident in these hotels — they lived previously at the Cascade Inn next door — can be stressful because of the amount of illegal activity there and nearby. According to the Villa Inn’s manager, 34 of the hotel’s 39 rooms are rented to residents.

Heidi Schiller
    On a gray weekday morning, a distracted woman’s dirty blond hair slaps against her cheeks as she crosses North Samish Way barefooted, a vacant look in her eyes as she dodges traffic.
   She doesn’t avoid the puddles as she makes her way to a gas station.
   It is not an uncommon sight for this stretch of hotels, motels, gas stations and fast-food restaurants known to many residents and business owners as an area where drug deals and transients are a common aspect of day-to-day life.
   The street’s eight hotels and motels advertise low weekly and monthly rates, kitchenette units, Internet access and HBO. Rates for one of the hotels run as low as $30 a night or $200 a week, a rate that surrounding business owners and police officers say is an invitation for criminal activity in the area.
   Of Bellingham’s 25 hotels and motels, six North Samish Way-area hotels had the highest number of report-generating 911 calls in the last three years, according to an analysis of records provided by the Bellingham Police Department (see list of all hotels and number of 911 calls, page A13).
   “Inherently, (these hotels) are going to get more of a certain type of crime,” Lieutenant Flo Simon said. “The ones on Samish are a lot more affordable (than hotels in other areas of the city), so they attract a different clientele than, say, the hotels in Fairhaven.”
   That clientele includes many transients who stay for weeks, months and even years in the rooms, and who sometimes use the rooms for illicit purposes, Simon said. Some of the hotels also are contracted to house sex offenders recently released from prison.
   “Most of the people that are into drugs and stealing know they can go to those hotels and get a place to stay and have all their friends crash there, and that’s where we get into problems,” Simon said.
   Trespass, warrants, drugs, disorderly conduct, domestic disputes and registered sex-offender address changes are the most common types of incidents police respond to in the North Samish Way hotels and motels, she said, (see sidebar). The level of crime in the area has stayed consistent for the last 10 years since Simon began patrols with the police department, she said.
   A comprehensive collation of police data reveals a veritable smorgasbord of incidents: theft, death investigations, child neglect, assault, meth labs, sex crimes, overdoses and attempted suicides.
   Domingo Gaona, general manager of the Villa Inn on North Samish Way — the hotel with the highest number of incidents — said he has been trying to combat the criminal and malicious activity for the past three years by working with the police department and instituting stricter rules and regulations for the hotel’s guests. But, he said, the task has proved to be an uphill battle, and he still must evict guests on occasion.
   Each of the hotels and motels on North Samish Way were contacted for this story, but Gaona was the only manager or owner who chose to comment.
   Business owners and residents along North Samish Way have mixed responses to the crime generated by the nearby hotels, from appreciation for increased patronage of their establishments to fearing for their and their employees’ safety.


Tony Dodge, lower right, lives in the Villa Inn with his daughter, Delfina Delgado, 17, center, and six-month-old grandson, Nathaniel Delgado. Dodge moved to Bellingham from Phoenix, Ariz., to get away from the crime and gangs prevalent there, but says police activity along N. Samish Way is frequent; he described many nights of peeking through the curtains in his darkened room to watch the police on calls nearby.

   “Samish Way used to be the entrance into the city of Bellingham. Now it’s one of those streets that has been forgotten,” said Kathy Sitker, who has owned and operated Diego’s Mexican Grill on North Samish Way for 11 years. She said the area’s crime has had an impact on her business and calls 911 several times per year, but said that in the last few months, she’s had to call more frequently.
   “We get a lot of druggies and alcoholics and have to call the police,” she said. “Lately, its been happening a lot. There seems to be a rash because of the holiday season.”
   The effects on her business range from minor annoyances — her employees’ tip jar has been stolen about twice a week for the last month, and she suspects drug users park in her parking lot before heading to one of the hotels for a deal — to major incidents, like being burglarized in November.
   Sitker said she does what she can for people in need, such as giving transients burritos if they are hungry — but is always on guard to ward off those that could potentially be dangerous to herself or her employees.
   “You run your business, you work hard, you try to feed someone who is hungry, but when they do damage, it’s scary,” she said.
   Recently, she called the police when a man — obviously high on meth, she said — began intimidating some of her female employees.
   Sometimes it is the trace of misbehavior left behind that causes her grief, like when someone abandons their car in her parking lot and she is left to deal with it, or when someone tags her restaurant’s wall and she must pay to remove the spray paint.
   Sitker said she cannot be sure these incidents come from the surrounding hotel guests, but she does know that oftentimes, when she gets a phone order with a fake or stolen credit card, or a scam where people say their food order was incorrect and want another meal for free, her phone’s caller i.d. reveals nearby hotel guests are making the calls.
   After the burglary in November, Sitker installed an alarm system and has always made sure her employees keep the back door locked and have at least two people working together at night; she routinely conducts safety meetings with her staff where she tells them to always keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.
   Sitker said she’s under the impression that some of the hotel residents have difficulty renting apartments due to their criminal record, and therefore resort to living in the low-cost hotels and motels along North Samish Way.
   Darbie Hall’s Brewed Awakening espresso stand on North Samish Way was robbed at knifepoint recently, the third time it has been robbed in broad daylight in the three years she’s owned the business with her sister, Tandie McClellan.
   She said that while the criminal element in the hotels doesn’t always directly affect her business, it still pervades the area.
   “We are very aware of it,” she said. “You watch people walk up and down from the hotels, some don’t have shoes on, or they have their pajamas on. It’s a lot of foot traffic that doesn’t belong there.”
   She sees a good deal of loitering, panhandlers and the occasional break-in of other businesses, but said that the feeling of a criminal element is more intuitive rather than objective.
   “I don’t necessarily see a lot of crime, just people I wouldn’t trust,” she said.
   But other business owners in the area have a different take on how the area’s hotel guests affect business.
   K. Bilg manages the Chevron station on North Samish Way and said that the hotel guests are a benefit to his business because they buy beer and cigarettes. He estimated that about half of his customers walk in from the nearby hotels.
   But, Bilg also concedes, the guests often cause problems, too.
   “The cops are always around here,” he said.
   He sees a lot of fights and drug trafficking. Sometimes transients will cluster behind the store, where the garbage is located, to drink beer or use drugs, and he has to regularly keep an eye out for trespassers, he said.
   Eric Ericsson, who moved his business, Prostock, from Cornwall Avenue to North Samish Way a year ago, said he is aware of criminal activity in the area, but that it doesn’t affect his business. In fact, he has found that the hotels provide his sporting-goods store with an increase in business during the summer from sports teams and their families who stay in the hotels during tournaments.
   Ericsson said he has experienced less crime in his Samish Way location than he did downtown, where he was located for 15 years.
   Many of the business owners along North Samish Way, regardless of whether or not they have personally experienced crime there, repeatedly mention keeping their back doors locked at all times, and always keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kathy Sitker, owner of Diego’s Mexican Grill on North Samish Way, said the effects of crime on her business range from the minor — her employees’ tip jar is stolen about twice a week — to major: Diego’s was burglarized twice in November alone.

Residents provide input
   Allen Matsumoto, president of the Sehome Neighborhood Association, said that many residents of the Sehome neighborhood feel unsafe walking around North Samish Way at night.
   “I can only say anecdotally that there are some parts of the transient population who live in the hotels who contribute to a feeling that there is crime down there. Some of the folks I’m guessing commit those crimes give a scary presence that makes residents uncomfortable walking there, especially after dark,” he said. “And because of that, it’s one more thing discouraging pedestrian access to businesses in that area.”
   The association is working on updating the neighborhood’s plan, with a significant focus on North Samish Way. A recent poll of Sehome residents found that 80 percent said they’d like the area to be redeveloped in some way, he said, and Matsumoto foresees a plan that encourages mixed-use, urban-village concepts.
   The association will hold a special meeting on March 6 to gather input from neighborhood businesses and residents on what they’d like to see the new neighborhood plan look like. The association hopes to submit a revised neighborhood plan to the city’s planning department by December of 2007.
   While the neighborhood is attempting to revise the area’s plan, some hotel owners and managers are attempting to combat the criminal activity in their hotels their own way.
   Gaona took over management at the Villa Inn on North Samish Way four years ago and began making strides to revise the hotel’s negative reputation for crime by instituting a list of rules and collaborating more with the police department.
   Now, all of his guests must agree to a list of rules, including no unregistered guests in the room after 10 p.m., guests will be asked to leave if there is any disturbance on the property, and no consumption of drugs in the room.
   Gaona said that 34 of his 39 rooms are rented to weekly or monthly renters, some of whom have lived there for years, but he does not know if any of them have criminal records.
   Most of the North Samish Way hotels were built in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when business travelers and families embraced the new concept of the motor inn. But as these hotels have aged, their clientele has changed, resulting in a different customer demographic.
   The police also provide Gaona with a list of people not to rent rooms to, and Gaona is vigilant about giving disruptive guests the boot. But he admits that despite all of these efforts, he still cannot completely curb the criminal activity there.
   “Sometimes a bad person sends a new person. We rent rooms to them and then the bad people come in through the back,” he said. “But, this place has changed a lot.”
   Simon said that many of the hotel owners have been willing to work with the police department on curtailing crime.
   “They are very open to us coming in there and talking to them and being a presence, and if we need information they are more than happy to work with us,” she said. “They don’t want that kind of clientele, but sometimes it can’t be helped with the kind of price they are charging, you know. It’s a very decent price.”
   A few years ago, Sitker founded a block watch with about five other business owners along Samish Way, but the effort fizzled after awhile because she said not enough people where willing to participate. Only one of the hotel owners wanted to be involved, she said.
   But Matsumoto has faith in the hotels’ ability to have an increasingly positive presence in the future. He said that while it is still unknown as to how the hotels will factor into the Sehome neighborhood plan update, he’d like to reach out to them to consider how they can participate. Many of the hotels are an asset to the area, he said.
   “Personally, I can see those hotels playing a real vital role in an urban village there,” he said. “We really hope to craft an approach that is win-win for business owners, property owners and residents. I have a lot of faith that that is very possible.”

Five things hotel owners can do
to fight crime

   1. Get good information on customers — photo ID, license plate and description of car and names of all people who are staying in the room.
   2. Enforce the no-loitering policy — after a certain hour, guests of renters should leave.
   3. Have rules posted in the lobby.
   4. Keep parking lot and other public areas well lit.
   5. Invest in cameras.

Source: Bellingham Police Department

N. Samish Way hotels:
911 call breakdown.

Click here to enlarge map.



Related Stories