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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Fair
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Checkout time at the Highlander Motor Inn
Officials take steps toward condemning Beltline hotel
Sisson by the Highlander: 'It's like being in Afghanistan or
Sisson by the Highlander: 'It's like being in Afghanistan or Iraq.'
Credit:Joe Tarr

David Sisson didn't expect to be in the middle of a combat zone when he moved his prosthetics business next to the Highlander Motor Inn in 2007.

But that's what the last couple of months have felt like, as he's witnessed several police raids at the hotel.

"I'm standing here watching a cop with an [assault rifle] jump over my fence, and cops are telling me to stay inside," says Sisson, who runs the Sisson Mobility Restoration Center on the Beltline. He had to close the office for several hours two weeks ago because of one such raid. "I call [clients] and tell them not to come in. There's cops with assault rifles hiding behind cars. It's like being in Afghanistan or Iraq."

Sisson, who criticized the Highlander in an Isthmus story two years ago ("Heartbreak Motels," 7/11/08), believes the situation has gotten even worse, to where he fears for his safety.

"At some point, guns are going to start to go off," he says, noting that there's a Montessori school and busy highway nearby. "If they've got to pull the trigger, you don't know where the round is going to end up.

The city of Madison is similarly frustrated with the Highlander, 4353 W. Beltline Hwy. Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy says the city is moving to condemn the property as a drug nuisance. If this happens, a court would order the owner to close the hotel and sell it.

Although this would likely be good news to many of the hotel's neighbors, Ald. Brian Solomon worries what effect it will have on the poor, as the Highlander does provide housing to people in need. Rates at the hotel are $45.80 a night, $175 a week or $600 a month.

"There are people out here who are struggling and do depend on places like the Highlander," he says. "I know people in Allied who get evicted and end up at the Highlander for a while. I know people who without the Highlander would be otherwise homeless."

But Solomon doesn't think the city has much choice. "I feel like a lot of effort has been put there, and it hasn't really helped," he says. "It just continues to be a pretty big problem."

Between January 2009 and the end of this April, the Highlander has logged 421 calls for police service, including dispatches for drug dealing, weapons possession and prostitution. Many other calls were minor, says Lt. David Jugovich.

"This is not just an issue of drug-related activity but chronic nuisance in general," Jugovich says. "There were all kinds of lower-type calls requiring police attention, which takes police resources and creates a nuisance."

Jugovich is starting to feel that enough is enough.

"We've been working with the owner and weren't getting a significant drop in the calls for service," he says. "On its face, it's not reasonable to have to go to that many calls for one business."

The Highlander's owner, Yichang Wang, who also lives at the hotel, says the problems are beyond his control.

"How I know they sell drugs or not?" asks Yichang, a Taiwanese native who has owned the building for 23 years. "I don't know exactly what [tenants are] doing. I'm not the police, I cannot search them. If I'm sure [they're breaking the law] I kick them out."

Yichang says most of his customers are "nice people" just trying to get by. "Sometimes the police come to search and find nothing. This is a bad area. I can't do anything about it. Police need to take care of it."

He adds that business has been bad lately, with many vacancies. Since the last police raid two weeks ago, Sisson says, the hotel has been relatively quiet.

Yichang's lawyer, Rick Petri, admits there have been problems at the Highlander, but argues that his client is not to blame.

"What can you expect a private entity to do, particularly when there are discrimination laws out there that prevent what you can do?" asks Petri. "They're making allegations of drug dealing going on on the premise. I don't know how somebody is supposed to know that before [renting out a room]."

Petri also suggests that the city's condemnation, which he plans to fight, is an effort to lower the property's value. Construction on the Beltline is scheduled in a couple of years, and it's possible that the Highlander (as well as Sisson's building) might be taken for the project.

"If it's vacant, they're going to get it for a hell of a lot less than if there's an enterprise that's ongoing," Petri says.

Zilavy, the city's attorney, expects to file the paperwork this week to condemn the property. It usually takes about two weeks for a judge to process the request. If it's granted, the courts generally give occupants 30 days to vacate the property, she says. The owner must then sell it.

A new owner, says Zilavy, could continue to operate it as a hotel. "The primary issue is to abate the nuisance that's occurring," she says. "If somebody else bought it and decided to run it as a hotel, it wouldn't be an issue as long as the same activity didn't occur."

Sisson hopes the hotel is closed, though he fears it'll be boarded up and become "a shooting gallery for junkies." He adds that there are similar nuisance problems at public housing behind the hotel.

Solomon calls for a different city approach. "We need to take much more seriously the issue of homelessness and poverty," he says. "We spend far too many resources addressing problems after they're problems rather than addressing the root causes."

He'd like to see more resources spent on transitional housing and eviction prevention. And, if the Highlander is shut down, Solomon hopes the property is used for something productive, possibly affordable housing, a grocery store or a community center.

Sisson has sympathy for the Highlander's residents and wouldn't be upset about drug use if it weren't for the violence, litter and police presence. "Being poor is not a crime," he says, "but the chaos that comes with the guns and drugs - I don't have to take it."

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