Running a motel on Interstate 35 near Rundberg Lane is not for the faint of heart.
Ralph Gudbaur learned that in the summer of 2008 when he confronted a man he suspected of dealing drugs in the parking lot of the Budget Lodge, where he’d just become the manager: “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Gudbaur, 65, asked. He said the man unleashed a string of profanities, then hit him in the chest so hard that he staggered backward into a wall.
“He just flat nailed me,” he said. A maintenance employee came to his rescue, waving a two-by-four.
That was Gudbaur’s welcome to the neighborhood.
He said he thought about packing up and returning to the Dallas area, but he stuck it out and has spent the past five years working to turn around a motel that had become a symbol of the criminal infestation of the Rundberg area (Gudbaur got the job after his predecessor was charged and later convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy who lived at the motel with his mother).
Austin police recently landed a $1 million federal grant and in January began a three-year effort to revitalize the North Austin neighborhoods that surround the intersection and root out the pervasive crime that has plagued the area. In addition to traditional methods like using extra officers to flood the area’s crime hot spots, they have teamed with a University of Texas sociology professor to come up with innovative ways to try to tackle the area’s problems.
And they are closely monitoring the motels clustered along I-35, which sit squarely in the area’s biggest hotspot and, police say, represent one of the keys to cleaning up the area. . For years, motel rooms in this area have drawn dealers and prostitutes looking for a place to do business close to the freeway — easily accesible to customers from other parts of town — but away from prying eyes.
The motels on the stretch of highway between Rundberg and U.S. 183 tend to be older buildings with bottom-of-the-market rates. Some are independent, and the well-known brands like Red Roof Inn are mostly owned by families or small-scale investors who have franchise agreements with the chains.
Police and neighbors say some of the motels have a history of letting the criminals take over. By 2008, the Budget Lodge had become the bane of Rundberg Lane, a place so infested with drugs and prostitutes that neighbors picketed the place and the city filed a lawsuit declaring it a public nuisance. Only a court-brokered settlement that included a long list of required improvements and policy changes saved it from being shut down.
Five years later, the Budget Lodge is relatively quiet. Police calls to the motel have dropped considerably — police recorded more than 50 drug-related offenses in 2007 and 2008, but less than a dozen since. They no longer rent rooms by the hour. And that pattern has repeated itself in many of the motels along the strip, thanks in large part to a group of new managers who, like Gudbaur, say they are working to keep the bad element out — often through face-to-face confrontations.
“All of them seem like they really want to help” reduce crime in the area, said Taber White, an Austin police district representative for the area. Several of them allow officers to stage investigations or special operations from their property.
Police offense reports compiled by krimelabb.com show that police calls to the motels dropped steeply in 2009 — immediately after the city filed suit against the Budget Lodge — but have crept higher since.
At the Red Roof Inn, manager Matt Franklin, a soft-spoken father of two, said he’s had a number of unpleasant encounters with the local criminals since he took the job last summer and began his regular walks through the parking lot.
“When you get a group of four or five gangbangers saying, ‘I’m going to f-ing kill you, I see the kind of car you drive,’ that’s enough for some people to quit,” said Franklin, 36.
“A person has to be strong,” he added. “It’s something you have to work at. You have to want it.”
Charles Rohre, a police sergeant who worked in the Rundberg area until recently, said not all of the motels are equally vigilant, and the criminals who literally circle the area can quickly figure out which motels — or even which employees on which shifts — won’t ask too many questions.
“I understand,” he said. “They work in it day in and day out and they have to have some sort of détente with people in that area. But it’ll never get better unless they have zero tolerance.”
Cmdr. Mark Spangler, who’s leading the “Restore Rundberg” initiative for APD, said most of the motels “are trying to do the right thing” but some are doing a better job than others. “We can’t really paint with a broad brush, but when you have some of them more interested in profit … than maintaining good guests, that’s where the conflict comes in.”
Phil Otken, who lives a few blocks from many of the motels, said for a long time, the motels “basically stuck their heads in the sand and said ‘It’s not my problem.’” Now he’s seeing fewer prostitutes trolling for customers in his neighborhood, although he can’t say whether that’s because of the motels’ efforts, the increased police pressure or some other cause.
“Transformation” may be too strong a word to describe what’s happening in these mostly low-end motels that charge as little as $30 a night, but police who patrol the area say it’s progress. And on Rundberg, any progress is welcome.
For three of those motels, trying to turn things around has been no easy feat.
This is my home
Gudbaur said he was at home in the Irving motel where he lived and worked as an assistant manager when he got a call from the motel’s owner, Larry Hall: “Ralph, I need you in Austin right now.” Hall, who owns several motels in Texas and his home state of California, had big trouble at the Budget Lodge.
“So I packed up some underwear and a change of clothes and I moved to Austin,” Gudbaur said.
When he arrived, the motel was crawling with TV crews, fire marshals and city code inspectors. City reports describe exposed wiring, missing windows, walls with holes, leaking faucets and a host of other problems.
Gudbaur said his first order of business was to evict about 20 drug dealers and prostitutes from the motel and fire most of the staff who had allowed the criminals to run rampant — including the registered sex offender and the convicted burglar who had been hired as security guards. (An Austin police document connected to the nuisance abatement case says that Hall told them he hadn’t visited the property in two years.)
Gudbaur moved into a ground floor room with his Rottweiler and began walking the property regularly. He noticed that the drug dealers would park at the motel, then cross Rundberg to deliver drugs to people at the bus stop, he said.
The confrontation that led to the punch in the chest wasn’t the last, Gudbaur said. But after working in the security business for 21 years, he’s developed a thick skin and the demeanor of a bulldog.
“I live here, I work here, this is my home and I treat it as such,” he said. “You don’t come and crap in my yard and expect to get away with it.”
Gudbaur said anyone who creates a problem gets one warning, then they’re evicted. He also began seeking long-term guests: he said about 100 of the motels’ 150 rooms house people who stay anywhere from weeks to months. One tenant has lived there seven years. And he said they notify the staff when they see problems.
“I have a network here that you would not believe,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t still have my problems because I do, but they last as long as it takes me to get up the stairs and knock on the door.”
As part of a settlement with the city, the motel hired a professional security company to patrol the property at night and Gudbaur began requiring background checks for new employees.
They also installed surveillance cameras and required a valid ID from every guest (they make copies of each ID). They barricaded the entrance to Rundberg so there’s only one way into the parking lot, off the I-35 service road.
Gudbaur said Hall has agreed to renovate 10 rooms, with more planned.
Police have monitored the motel’s compliance with the conditions set by the city. They found that several surveillance cameras weren’t working in February 2011 — when two pizza delivery drivers were robbed at the motel on back-to-back nights.
The police closed their nuisance abatement case against the motel in January 2012, noting that “at this time, the hotel is meeting the requirements set in the agreed judgment.”
Now Gudbaur says he’s close to retiring. “It really worries me what’s going to happen to this property when I leave,” he said.
Next door at the Economy Inn, manager Stephanie Rollings remembers walking to a nearby gas station in February when a man trolling for prostitutes pulled off the I-35 service road and rolled down his window. “How much?” he asked.
Rollings, a 53-year-old mother of two, shook her head in disgust. “I can’t walk down the street to the gas station without getting propositioned just because I’m female and I’m in a certain area?”
Rollings said prostitutes and drug dealers frequently roam past the motel on Middle Lane, which connects I-35 with the neighborhood to the west.
When guests check in, Rollings gives them the speech: no smoking in the rooms, no visitors allowed, and loud music or fighting will mean immediate eviction.
“I’m basically threatening people as they check in,” she said, shaking her head. “And that’s just so opposite of how other businesses are run.”
The stricter policies, she said, put a damper on their business earlier this year. But it’s kept illegal activity down: since 2007, police have recorded only nine drug offenses there — and just one since 2010 — and no prostitution arrests.
“Word gets around what places will put up with stuff and what places won’t,” she said. “We could look the other way too, and we’d probably be full all the time.”
They’ve found another deterrent for criminals: higher rates.
It’s worked well for the Holiday Inn Express down the road, which has largely avoided the problems that have plagued its neighbors. It’s the most upscale hotel on the strip — in the airy lobby, lemonade and cookies are laid out for guests – but it’s the hotel’s nightly rates of $115 to $160 that keep the drugs and prostitution away, said Kris Skillern, a guest services representative.
For cheap motels that want to upgrade their clientele, “It’s kind of a Catch-22 almost,” he said. “If you have a higher rate, you can fix up the place, but you can’t get a higher rate because the place isn’t fixed. You have to spend money to make money.”
The Economy Inn’s owner, Peter Patel, has taken that philosophy to heart, pouring nearly $50,000 into renovating the motel’s 15 rooms – adding touches like crown molding and wall-mounted flatscreen TVs — and painting the exterior a bright orange.
They’ve increased their daily rate and now charge significantly more than some neighboring motels, hoping to attract a better clientele. Patel said he’s seeing more return customers, less damage to the rooms and less theft of towels and other items.
Red Roof reform
At the Red Roof Inn, the battle is personal for Franklin, who moved his family to the Rundberg area from Michigan about five years ago. He’s pained by the despair he sees around him.
“It rocks me to my core to see young women – someone’s daughter – come to the (motel) desk, shaking because they’re addicted to drugs,” he said.
He said he’s seen prostitutes perched on the curb outside their apartment complex as he takes his daughter to school. One chilly morning, he saw barefoot teenaged girl wearing next to nothing, asleep in a filthy recliner that someone had dumped in a nearby vacant lot. He said his 11-year-old daughter still brings it up from time to time.
Since becoming manager of the 141-room motel in August, Franklin has seen plenty of out-of-towners grab a room key, then return to the lobby a half-hour later after sizing up the surrounding area, asking for their money back.
He said the Red Roof was caught between two hubs for criminal activity: The apartments and duplexes behind them on Sam Rayburn Drive — where in January police said they raided the apartments of several people who were buying stolen goods — and the Austin Suites next door.
“Austin Suites was definitely a thorn in our side when we came here,” he said. “The problem was drug dealing and prostitution running rampant over there.”
The bad element had infested the Red Roof too. Franklin said he quickly fired the security company because they weren’t stopping the chronic vehicle break-ins or the groups of gangbangers and druggies who were partying in the rooms. He hired a new company to monitor the motel’s security cameras 24 hours a day.
Franklin said the staff began making copies of each guest’s drivers license, and anyone who has to be evicted or leaves drug paraphernalia in the room after checking out has their ID added to the DNR list – short for “do not rent” – which has grown into hundreds of sheets in an overstuffed three-ring binder.
And he and the staff began stopping people on the property, asking for their IDs and their reason for visiting.
“If they’re here for illegal business and they get the idea the front desk is paying attention, they’ll go,” he said.
But some don’t go quietly. He’s gotten used to beginning conversations in the parking lot with, “We’ve already called the police and they’re on their way.”
His call-the-police-first policy led to a spike in police activity at the motel last year: police recorded 50 offenses, up from 22 in 2011.
“I wanted the police in our parking lot all the time,” Franklin said, adding that police were initially so slow to respond that drug dealers often had time to make another sale or two before disappearing. But now, he said, “they’re here within two minutes. We don’t have the thugs and gangbangers trying to do business on this property anymore.”
But prostitutes keep trying, he said, asking their customers to rent a room, then jumping the back fence so they don’t have to pass the lobby.
Franklin acknowledged that the stricter policies cost them some business initially, but “only the kind of business that we were trying to get rid of anyway.”
He’s noticed that his neighbors seem to be doing the same since new management took over at Austin Suites in December. The previous owner went into bankruptcy and lost the property through foreclosure.
“In the last two months he has really made an effort to clean things up over there, I’ve probably seen about 20 percent of the (normal) riff-raff,” Franklin said. “A lot of those (problem) people aren’t there anymore. He’s kicking them out.”
Management at Austin Suites did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Franklin said he wants to see the area become safer. He wants to be able to tell guests that yes, it’s safe to jog in the neighborhood. He wants to see what he considers the root of the area’s problems — illegal drugs — addressed in a way that doesn’t just move the problem to another neighborhood.
“I don’t have all the answers, I’m just doing what I can,” he said.
Dave Harmon has reported and edited for the Statesman since 1995, covering criminal courts, county government, the Texas-Mexico border and the Legislature before joining the investigative team. For a link to his March 24 story about efforts to address crime in the Rundberg Lane area, go to this story online.
Police seek more cooperation among motels
The police who work in the Rundberg area say getting all the businesses along Interstate 35 near Rundberg Lane to come together in sort of a crime-fighting coalition remains one of their biggest goals.
But it’s proven elusive. And no one can seem to agree on why.
The problem is obvious to everyone, including Economy Inn owner Peter Patel: “If I don’t rent to someone, they’ll go to another hotel. That’s why we need to cooperate.”
Police envision a network where all the hotels and motels share information about troublesome guests and create a universal “do not rent” list that they all honor. If someone gets evicted from one motel, he or she is shut out of all of them.
Red Roof Inn manager Matt Franklin says some of the businesses along the highway already do this informally. He said he talks regularly to some of his neighboring businesses and they alert each other to suspicious activity when they see it on each other’s property.
Like several managers interviewed for this story, Franklin said he’d like to see all the motels on the strip band together and communicate regularly. Why hasn’t it happened?
Budget Lodge manager Ralph Gudbaur said some people don’t want to collaborate with their competition, even for something positive. Police say some owners and managers just don’t seem interested — Taber White, an APD district representative, said he still hasn’t been able to reach the owner of one motel to ask.
And others, White said, talk like they want to help reduce crime but do things that attract it — like the two gas stations at Rundberg and Interstate 35 that recently opened smoke shops on their property that sell glass pipes and rolling papers.
Those same gas stations routinely call police to report drug dealers and transients on their property, he said.
“Is that small amount of income really worth it?” he said.