Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s notorious Morgan Motel is in foreclosure, and the city wants to buy it

This difference, according to Lane Smith, is stark and striking, and he’s not alone in the assessment.

When the Morgan Motel is closed and boarded up — which thankfully has been a fairly frequent occurrence over the last several years, as the historically plagued property has struggled to hold onto its license to operate — things in the South East Tacoma neighborhood feel decidedly different.

There’s less small-time crime, Smith says, and less prostitution and drug use. All around, for those who live in the area or spend time doing businesses near the corner of Pacific Avenue and South 72nd Street, things improve.

It’s been a known fact of life in the area for many years, Smith says, even as the city and Tacoma police have tried to mitigate the problem.

With a recent history dotted with law-enforcement raids, arrests, methamphetamine contamination and plywood-covered windows, the Morgan Motel has been a black cloud for the neighborhood.

So when Smith learned this week about something that might finally end the frustrating and depressing cycle, he couldn’t mask his excitement.

Next month, on Valentine’s Day, the Morgan Motel is scheduled to be auctioned to the highest bidder, Smith learned when my out-of-the-blue phone call arrived. The notorious motel — which has been closed since last year — is in foreclosure.

According to Smith, as well as elected officials and city staff, the forced sale represents a chance for someone to move in and finally do something positive with it.

When I told him, I could almost hear Smith’s cartwheels on the other end of the line.

A change for the better is a long time coming.

Along with a group of investor friends, Smith owns eight parcels of land surrounding the Morgan Motel, including where the semi-iconic Spud’s Pizza Parlor and the less-iconic AutoZone now stand. He also owns the Tacoma Stars, for those playing at home.

In 2001, the group purchased the property with a vision of redeveloping, but the plan “stagnated,” Smith told The News Tribune this week. With the Morgan next door, it never seemed like a solid business decision..

“We’re just in a situation where we’re not going to invest large sums of money developing the property if you have that slice in between us and the Rite Aid, which is just a bad apple,” Smith said. “We would love to develop, maybe build some low-income housing, put up apartments, maybe have Spud’s redone.

“But why would we invest when you have something like that next door? It’s bad for business.”

There’s no doubt, and it’s something Jeff Robinson, who directs Tacoma’s office of Community and Economic Development, is well aware of.

The city also has had its eye on the Morgan trustee sale, Robinson told me this week.

Now, with its auction imminent, there’s a significant interest in making a deal that would allow the city to purchase and develop the property, he said.

According to public documents, the trustee sale seeks to recoup just over $700,000 in debt and other charges owed by the property’s current owners to a local real estate lender.

Attempts by The News Tribune to reach the Morgan Motel’s current owners were unsuccessful.

Robinson told me the city has reached out in hopes of purchasing the property before the auction takes place.

Noting the site’s proximity to transportation and other essential services, Robinson said the city believes the Morgan property would be “an excellent site for a development,” though he also acknowledged the need for more “due diligence” on the city’s behalf before cutting a final check.

Broadly speaking, Robinson said housing — of some sort — seems like a good fit..

“The city is hopeful that they’ll be able to come to terms with the ownership and the lender,” Robinson said.

Tacoma City council member Chris Beale, who represents the district, is equally hopeful.

Beale said such an opportunity has been on his mind for some time, and now that it has arrived, he says the city is prepared to act.

The money to make it happen is available, Beale believes.

Like Robinson, Beale cited housing as a possibility, though he also mentioned a need for community meeting space.

One early idea Beale said he would like to consider is moving the Safe Streets office to the site.

Whatever happens, Beale said, buying the Morgan property would finally allow for a “positive use” there.

That’s important, and not just from the perspective of economic development and smart neighborhood growth, he said.

Allowing conditions to persist at the Morgan over the years, Beale said, has just “furthered the narrative that no one (at City Hall) cares.”

“This would send a clear and direct message to those folks in my neighborhood that we do care, and we’re trying every positive angle, and asking every tough question, to see if we can abate this thing,” Beale said. “Whatever that looks like, we don’t know yet.”

Smith’s eager for the property to become something other than a constant drain on the community and an impediment to improvements and further investment.

As a businessman, he also was eager to get off the phone with me, so he could start making a few calls of his own.

“If the city picks it up, or we work together with them to pick it up, then we could definitely start looking seriously at some redevelopment plans,” Smith said.

“One bad apple spoils the bunch,” he added. “We hope the right thing will happen.”

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.