The Go Forward Pine Bluff non-profit corporation on Tuesday bought a blighted downtown apartment building that has attracted crime in recent years.
Go Forward Chief Executive Officer Ryan Watley purchased the Crown Motel, located at Walnut Street and 5th Avenue, for the minimum bid of $26,392.30 at a public auction for tax-delinquent property at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
“Big victory,” Watley said, exhaling as he exited the auction without having to bid against other bidders. “Big victory. That’s huge.”
Current owners Ravindra K. Kushwaha and Amanda Kushwaha could not be reached for comment. By law they have 10 days to pay the delinquent taxes, after which the Go Forward corporation receives a limited-term deed, Watley said. That would be followed by three months in which they can contest the sale of the property. Watley estimated there would be a final resolution on ownership in roughly 100 days, though it could take longer.
“The Crown Motel has a longstanding reputation as a hub for illicit activity, which grossly underserves families seeking shelter,” Watley said. “Upon due process, we will evaluate the occupants and provide a clean, safe environment, paired with social services for long-term stability.”
Should the sale go through, Watley said the Go Forward corporation planned to provide a better living place and determine what social services were needed by families living at the motel. The property would then be donated to the City of Pine Bluff, he said. Watley cited an urban renewal program within the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative through which the city could potentially repurpose the property.
Pine Bluff voters will vote June 13 in a special election whether to approve a new five-eighths cent sales tax to fund the plan.
Watley said the property was purchased Tuesday with funds that were raised as part of $6 million in commitments from the Pine Bluff business community that are part of the plan. He also thanked the Pine Bluff Rising non-profit, for which he recently served as a board member, for helping Go Forward to hold the property.
The motel attracted a flurry of unwanted attention in October 2015 after city inspectors documented a host of code violations and it was revealed that police had responded 100 times to the site within the previous six months.
The code violations included fallen concrete, exposed, rusting rebar, electrical wires hanging out and potential fire hazards.
The Commercial reported soon after that police had responded to calls at the motel almost 100 times in the previous six months. A third of those were disturbance calls, while there were 16 domestic calls, six calls regarding loud noise, four for theft, one for trespassing and four for suspicious activity.
Officers also wrote three reports for theft of property, three for third-degree domestic battery, one for terrorist threatening, one for breaking or entering, one disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and 19 reports where officers were dispatched but recorded no offenses.
Then-Pine Bluff Police Chief Jeff Hubanks called the motel a “hot spot” for criminal activity.
“The real number for tracking is where the victims are because unfortunately, the victims and the perpetrators all live there together,” Hubanks said.
On Oct. 21, 2015, electrical service was cut off for several hours to the motel. Tenants complained, and within days the motel manager said all but three long-term customers had moved out.
Soon after, the City Council considered an ordinance to establish definitions for hotels and motels in Pine Bluff and establish penalties for violators, which was viewed as targeted at the Crown Motel, but the ordinance was tabled.
Alderwoman Thelma Walker opposed the proposed ordinance from what she called a “humanitarian standpoint.”
“There are some people who have no other place to stay,” Walker said. “One of my constituents lived there (Crown Motel) for about three months. She had three children and was displaced.”
In April 2016, a 36-year-old man was arrested at the motel after allegedly starting a fire and throwing furniture out the window.