Branson motels see signs of improvement
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — On his first day with the Branson Police Department in 2012, Stan Dobbins told the sergeant on duty, “Take me to your problem area. I need to see the problem.”
Dobbins, who served as assistant chief and then chief of the department before taking over as Branson’s city administrator, said the sergeant drove him to an extended-stay motel.
“I got out of the car and there was a little boy riding a Big Wheels,” Dobbins recalled. “I looked down at this little child and there were needles laying on the pavement. I said, ‘This will stop.’”
Dobbins, who has four kids and nine grandchildren, said the thought of kids growing up in extended-stay motels weighs on him.
“It’s heartbreaking to me. I would go out in the mornings and watch the bus stops, watch them pick up children at the motels,” Dobbins said. “The children of our community are our future. They deserve a place to play. And that is hard to find living in a hotel.”
As police chief, Dobbins created the Safe Housing Program within the police department, with officers specifically assigned to the motels.
He was also involved in the creation of a tier program that tracks the number of calls for service (excluding calls for medical emergencies) that each hotel generates.
The Springfield News-Leader reports that hotels and motels are sorted into three tiers. To fall into the third tier — the worst — a property has to average more than one call for service per room per year.
Properties that fall into the third tier face several consequences under city ordinance: They must ensure that people visiting hotel occupants leave by 11 p.m., provide front-desk personnel at all times, install outdoor lighting and digital surveillance, issue parking passes for residents, participate in crime prevention training and more.
Tier 1 properties are required to maintain a guest log and keep a list of registered sex offenders who live or work on site. Tier 2 properties have those same requirements, but must also have a hotel operator on site at all times and install surveillance cameras.
After the first year, all of the hotels and motels remained at Tier 1 except for Branson Villas and the Queen Anne, which are both at Tier 2.
But more on the Queen Anne later.
Another new ordinance, which went into effect in January, gives “more teeth” to health department, fire and building code inspections, Dobbins said.
That ordinance holds owners responsible for properly maintaining the facilities. Every year, when it comes time to renew its business license, the motel must pass health, fire and building code inspections.
This is also intended to avoid any confusion about who owns the property and who is responsible for making repairs.
In Branson, some extended-stay motels change ownership often, and new owners sometimes conceal their identities by using LLCs (limited liability companies). What’s more, those “new owners” might actually just be leasing the motel from an original deed-holder.
“That’s why we changed our policy,” Dobbins said. “It’s not just whoever the supposed person is on the lease at the time. It is that property owner. The property is going to be corrected before any business license is issued.
“If a building has a structural defect, that building will have to be corrected before it can be opened again.”
Any time a property switches hands, the new owner must apply for a business license from the city. The city will not grant the license until the facility passes all inspections.
“Some of the owners have embraced it,” Dobbins said. “As with any industry, you have people that know what they are doing. They care. They take care of their property. And we have those who don’t.”
Dobbins said he can think of at least four extended stays that have shut down since the ordinance was implemented. Another was recently put on notice, he said.
“They have a problem and they are going to fix it,” Dobbins said of that motel. “If they don’t, we are going to shut them down.”
“We want to work with people. We are not trying to run people out of business,” Dobbins said. “We are trying to make it where everyone in our community has a clean, safe place to live.”
Dobbins said more changes are in the works. He has instructed the Planning and Zoning Department to work with the Branson Fire Department to craft an ordinance that would mirror the state statute on the definitions of an apartment and of a motel.
“If property owners think they are going to run motels as apartments, then they are going to have to make some changes,” he said. “It will have to have proper cooking utensils and a real stove with a hood, a refrigerator, a sleeping space for people.”
It is common for people living in extended stays to cook in their rooms, Dobbins said, which is unsafe.
“They are overloading electric circuits, using devices that were never intended to be used in a motel room,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to think we are trying to run people out of business. Our goal is to provide quality living for everyone.”
He added that crafting such an ordinance that would require owners to make these changes will take a little time to get “constitutionally and statutorily sound.”
“We will get there,” Dobbins said. “Quite frankly, it’s just a matter of time.”
City officials are also working with developers and the state to encourage more low-income housing in the area.
“A motel room is not a home for children. There is no stove. That is not a real refrigerator,” he said. “They are motel rooms. They were never meant for that.”
Another solution that Dobbins said he “rants and rails” about all the time is diversifying Branson’s economy, so there are more better-paying, year-round jobs.
He would like to see light industry come to Branson — perhaps a factory that makes batteries for electric cars. He also wants a Sam’s Club or a Costco.
“We have the workforce. We have plenty of space to build. We have highways that will take you anywhere in the state,” he said.
“Tourism is awesome. But we also need a year-round economy.”
For those wondering if the city’s new ordinances have had any impact, take a look at the Queen Anne, the extended stay located across from White Water.
The Queen Anne was once among the police department’s most frequently visited extended stays. When the tier system was implemented in 2017, the Queen Anne was one of two motels deemed a Tier 2, meaning it had a few more safety requirements imposed than the Tier 1 motels.
According to Branson Police Officer Donald Donathan, the Queen Anne has had just five calls for service so far this year. By this time in 2017, there had been 24 calls.
Donathan said the Queen Anne is “on track to be categorized as a Tier 1 hotel in January 2019.”
“They have shown great effort in improving their business practices and trying to keep their property safe for those living, working and visiting the property,” Donathan said, adding he appreciates that management has “taken a zero tolerance approach when it comes to criminal activity or unauthorized people on the property.”
Jenn and Jordan Clark took over as managers of the Queen Anne in December 2017. The Clarks embraced the city’s new security requirements and say they are working hard to make Queen Anne residents feel like family.
This past summer, they hosted many poolside cookouts and birthday parties for residents. On July 4, they had their own fireworks show right there on the parking lot.
“We are all a big family. We all care. This is our home,” Jenn Clark said. “We are very secure at our place. We make sure that (the building) is taken care of and everybody in it is taken care of. Even when it comes to food, everybody kind of shares, cooks together.”
“It’s a community,” she continued. “It’s hard work. But we like to have fun, and we care a lot about our tenants.”
Jenn Clark said she has no problem telling someone she suspects is using drugs to get lost.
“The safety of my people here means a lot to me,” she said. “And (our) reputation of an extended stay in the community of Branson means a lot to me.”
Jenn Clark said they had a lot of work to do when they took over last year, but she feels like the Queen Anne is finally where it should be.
“I have guests and visitors sign in, do background checks and IDs as well. It’s not just tenants,” she said. “Anybody on the property is required to show an ID and sign in. If they don’t, they have to leave.”
“We have full surveillance of the entire place and motion detector lights,” she said. “Curfew is at 10 o’clock and we do security checks to make sure of that. They need to be inside their room. We have people sleeping that have to be at work the next day. They have children. Things like that. You don’t want everybody outside.”
When the News-Leader visited the Queen Anne over the summer, the Rev. David Ellis was sitting outside his room on the ground floor, watching the traffic on Highway 76.
Originally from Springfield, Ellis said he moved into the Queen Anne in April after his divorce.
“This is the only place I would live in Branson,” he said. “It feels like family.”
For example, Ellis said, there was a young man living at the Queen Anne who was having financial troubles a few weeks prior and couldn’t come up with rent money. The Clarks, Ellis and others came together to help with his rent. That young man has since found a better job and was able to move into a regular apartment.
“There’s things this place has done that no other place will ever do.”
Darrell Gibson, who lives a few doors down from Ellis, said he feels safe at the Queen Anne.
“I listen to the scanner at night. I know who gets the calls and who doesn’t. We try to keep the bad out of here,” Gibson said. “The management is great. They adopted me as part of their family. I am very grateful for that.”
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com