Many of bartender Kaylie Hagg’s customers at Broadway Pizza in Plymouth stay at one of five nearby hotels. But gazing out the window at the Red Roof Inn, she said she’s just as likely to see blue and red flashing lights as customers strolling over to her place for a slice of pizza.
“I’ve seen shady activity over there,” Hagg said. “The cops are over once per shift.”
City officials found that though the Red Roof Inn offers 12 percent of the city’s hotel rooms, it accounts for 43 percent of police calls to hotels. While some online reviews say the hotel is clean and call it “a good value,” others note the scent of marijuana and syringes left in rooms.
So the Plymouth City Council took action, requiring licensing for each of the city’s seven hotels. Now city officials can strip a hotel’s license if they find too many police calls there.
From Brooklyn Center to Chaska, suburbs are cracking down on problem hotels by requiring them to get a license, giving the cities leeway to intervene at crime-ridden establishments that drain municipal resources.
“Calls at our hotels and motels were escalating, and there was really no remedy that we had other than … taking care of the issue and coming back a couple hours later,” said Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon.
Some hotel managers and owners welcome the regulations. But others contend that policing hotels is part of law enforcement’s job, and that tracking 911 calls could discourage hotels from calling for help when needed.
“The cities keep adding more and more fees,” said Bill Foussard, owner of the Best Western Plus in White Bear Lake. “You’d think that some of the things you get for the taxes you pay would cover police, fire.”
While some wonder whether licensing will make a difference, experts said the strategy has worked elsewhere.
“It’s a wonderful tool in a city’s arsenal,” said Craig Waldron, who teaches public administration at Hamline University and is North St. Paul’s interim city manager. “If management isn’t taking care of the drugs and prostitution and so forth, licensing … gives you a way to solve these problems.”
Guards and cameras
That hotels — especially low-budget inns — attract criminal activity long has been accepted. With customers paying for privacy, some by the hour, it’s hard for law enforcement to keep tabs on activity. The 24-hour nature of the business, and floor plans that allow patrons to enter from outside, only add to the challenge.
In the metro area, the licensing trend started in 2015 with Minneapolis, in an effort to penalize hotels for keeping poor records and allowing illegal activity, said Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota.
Brooklyn Center was among the first suburbs to license hotels, in December 2016. The city had assigned a special police unit to hotels, but frequent hotel management turnover led to “a return to excessive police calls and high profile violent crime” at the same places, a city memo said, including a homicide at the Quality Inn in 2017.
The city’s ordinance created a three-tiered system for hotels, based on the number of police calls per room. Those with the most calls are required to have security guards 12 hours a day and issue parking passes. Noncompliance results in a downgraded license and a higher fee, and the City Council can eventually revoke the license.
Chaska and Plymouth city leaders have instituted a similar system in the past six months, and Roseville officials are interested.
The goal is to ensure that hotel managers “are doing the kinds of things that have been proven to reduce police calls,” said Brooklyn Center City Manager Curt Boganey.
One reason Chaska sought a licensing ordinance, according to Nate Kabat, assistant city administrator, is that it’s drawing more interest from hotel developers. Officials want them to understand the city’s expectations regarding hotels. “We want to be a place people want to come and stay,” he said.
The most common reason for calls to hotels by Plymouth police was suspicious activity; prostitution ranked fifth. City officials even created graphs tracking the number of calls in proportion to a hotel’s property taxes.
“It really comes down to how do we spend our tax dollars?” said Steve Juetten, Plymouth’s community development director.
One size fits all?
Not everyone is on board with increased regulation. McElroy said that while his organization hasn’t taken an official position on hotel licensing, he’s not convinced that it’s effective.
“I get a little frustrated with a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said.
Burnsville city officials, unhappy with having received 2,100 police calls from hotels in a single year, weighed whether to pursue licensing this spring but decided against it. Police Chief Eric Gieseke admitted that police calls at five of the city’s nine hotels were “excessive” but said it was too soon to tell whether licensing works.
Other city officials noted that most issues stemmed from one hotel, and that a licensing program wouldn’t be budget-neutral.
Nathan Kremer, manager at the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn, said his hotel’s police call total “was up there a little more.” But he said he likes to call with any problems.
“I do feel like we’re getting penalized as a good property, I really do,” Kremer said.
The licensing ordinances in Brooklyn Center, Plymouth and Chaska only count calls placed about criminal activity at a hotel, not calls made by hotel employees.
Waite Park approved licensure last year to deal with its only hotel, the site of hundreds of police calls and a homicide several years ago, said Shaunna Johnson, Waite Park city administrator. She said it has helped so far.
“We’ve finally gotten [hotel management] to the table,” Johnson said. But time will tell whether it succeeds long-term, she said.
Mike Zimmerman of Minnetonka has stayed at the Red Roof in Plymouth three times while he was working nearby construction jobs. He said he’s noticed that police come around often, but that makes him feel safe.
Still, he supports hotel licensing: “I think that’s a fantastic idea.”