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Roanoke funded to buy, demolish 50-year-old motel some see as blight

Roanoke funded to buy, demolish 50-year-old motel some see as blight

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A Roanoke motel that blemishes a booming part of the city will close and be demolished if the owner and city can agree on a price.

Few are expected to miss the Ramada Inn at 1927 Franklin Road, which was built in 1970 by a once-vibrant local lodging chain but has fallen in disrepair and become a magnet for people without homes.

The Ramada sits less than half a mile from a set of office, research, education and health care centers built by Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech and through a collaboration between the two. Motel guests can see a red crane building a $300 million expansion of Roanoke Memorial Hospital, but also people who appear to be homeless going to and from hangouts and panhandling spots.

A government program that pays 75% of the cost to remove flood-damaged structures has agreed to cover the Ramada Inn, which sits on either side of a quick-to-flood stream. The city, which will provide the remaining 25%, has access to more than $3 million to buy the Ramada and more than $1 million to remove it.

Ramada Inn owner Sunny Shah, a longtime business owner, tourism advocate and community volunteer, believes he could sell it as a budget motel for about $4 million.

“Business is good,” he said, adding that 56 of 96 rooms were rented Thursday night.

But he said people who appear homeless would continue to frequent the premises and congregate in the area and that would detract from tourism amenities such as the nearby Roanoke River Greenway and the general business climate. He sounded hopeful the city will offer him an acceptable price.

“Once this property is gone, nobody can hang out here,” Shah said.

In addition, an adjacent property could be redeveloped, boosting the prosperity of the Franklin Road business corridor between Wonju Street and Reserve Avenue, he said.

In its heyday, the motel operated as the Holiday Inn South. With its banquet rooms, restaurant, 50-foot swimming pool and four floors of guest rooms, it was one of a number of area Holiday Inns built by American Motor Inns, a Roanoke-based company that once had 53 Holiday Inns in eight states and the Caribbean. AMI, as it was called, for a time operated its headquarters from an office center behind the motel.

The company closed, the Franklin Road Holiday Inn became a Ramada and Shah bought it in 1994. In the 27 years that have passed, the property has aged, faced competition from new hotels and business has declined, he said. He found he could rent to construction workers who needed lodging in the city for many days at a time. The market his Ramada Inn serves has continued to evolve to include clients of social services agencies, such as the Roanoke Rescue Mission, Total Action for Progress, the Council for Community Services and ARCH — leading nonprofits that assist people facing homelessness, addiction, crisis and poverty — who bed down at the Ramada at agency expense. He said he housed many people who needed a place to stay during the pandemic.

Shah expressed compassion for people who are struggling with any of the above challenges, which for some occurred in conjunction with exposure to or infection with COVID-19.

It’s not their fault, he said.

He also expressed irritation with people who are not registered Ramada guests using its restrooms, charging phones in its electrical outlets, helping themselves to the continental breakfast and hanging around.

Area business owners attribute what they describe as a problem with theft, vandalism, harassment and drug use in the area to people they say they see entering and coming out of the Ramada area. Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances respond to the premises often, they say.

A registered sex offender lists his current address as being at a Ramada room, according to a Virginia State Police database. A needle exchange at one time leased space in an office and warehouse building behind the motel.

George Clements, who operates George’s Flowers next door to the Ramada, said an increase in crime and loitering appeared to coincide with the presence of the needle exchange, which has moved out.

Elimination of the Ramada “would be a wonderful thing to occur,” said Boyd Johnson, a real estate agent who handles leasing for the Varsity Park Business Center, which is across the street from the Ramada. Varsity Park, which also houses Virginia Varsity Transfer and Storage, is a multimillion-dollar investment that transformed the former Graves Humpreys building at Franklin Road and Brandon Avenue. Ten to 12 office suites ranging from 300 square feet to 4,400 square feet are available in the business center, Johnson said.

A walk around reveals graffiti, discarded hotel furnishings and filth in the Ramada’s corridors and parking lot. A Virginia Department of Health official who visited in August in response to a complaint found multiple areas including a stairwell and laundry room were “not maintained in good repair” as well as insects in room 207, an inspection report said. The pool, closed by the pandemic, contained standing water and trash, the inspector found.

Shah said all guest rooms on the first floor, about a quarter of the total capacity, are out of service due to the risk posed by flash flooding from Ore Branch, which bisects the property en route to the Roanoke River immediately to the north.

In addition, Shah has deferred maintenance of the property since he learned in 2019 that the city had sought Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to buy it – a grant that recently came through. The government has documented at least a dozen floods in the immediate area since 1978. After an especially damaging storm in 2005, the Ramada’s banquet room had 20 inches of floodwater and the hotel had $288,000 in damage, Shah said at the time.

The hotel is “disgusting in every way possible,” according to an online review at the website of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Ramada brand.

“The elevator could make a maggot gag,” said another guest review last month.

The Roanoke city manager recently received the go-ahead to bargain with Shah on a price for the motel’s two mustard-brown buildings, one containing guest rooms and one a lobby and conference center as well as the pool and front and rear parking lots.

“I’m interested,” Shah said.

The project budget allocates $3.4 million for acquisition and $1.35 million for asbestos work and removal. Were demolition to go forward, crews would restore the land to a natural condition to remain as permanent open space. Officials have allotted three years for the entire process, but the city manager, Bob Cowell, said he does not think that much time will be needed.

Shah also owns land behind the motel and the partially vacant Franklin Square commercial office and warehouse building there, which is also in the floodplain, according to city records. While the hotel site can’t be redeveloped due to flood risk, Shah said the rear property is a development opportunity for him or somebody else. The government money is not paying for the clearing of that property. It would be up to the developer to handle that cost.

A building elevated out of the risk zone for flooding could be built there, or the area could remain open space, according to city records. All in all, the motel and the office building parcels total 5.5 acres, according to real estate records.

The spot sits between Franklin Road and Interstate 581 and is bounded on the north by Wiley Drive, the greenway and the river. Some city officials see possibilities for some sort of outdoor amenities compatible with occasional flooding, while some area business owners would like to see parking. River’s Edge Sports Complex, which is across the street, has only limited parking.

The nearby area is booming. The $90-million Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC opened in October on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus, slightly more than a quarter mile from the Ramada. Carilion has said it would like to build a $150 million cancer center at Franklin Road and Reserve Avenue, 600 feet north of the Ramada property.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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