After years of battling crime and blight at The Prince Downtown motel, the City of Sanford, North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE), and neighboring Sanford residents and businesses have worked together to close it down permanently.
The Prince Downtown has long been known as a nuisance to City officials, Sanford police, and the community. However, North Carolina law sets such a high threshold for shutting down private businesses that even the most egregious activities didn’t allow local law enforcement authorities to do more than issue a citation or make an arrest.
City, ALE, Neighbors Come Together for the Common Good
As individual complaints about The Prince Downtown stacked up, City staff and police worked behind the scenes with ALE on a strategy to protect the community from the nuisance activities – and they partnered with neighboring property owners to do it.
The City gathered statements from many neighbors and business owners affected by The Prince Downtown’s nuisance activities and used them to file a suit in June 2022 against the motel’s current and former owners. On June 27, 2022, a North Carolina Superior Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order against the current owners that prohibited any further nuisance and criminal activity on the property pending a trial.
“The temporary restraining order was an important first step in the legal process,” says Mayor Rebecca Wyhof Salmon. “With the order in place, the motel’s owners were given the opportunity to remedy the City’s concerns and the City had a tool to hold the owners accountable if they didn’t.”
Despite the Judge’s order, The Prince Downtown’s current owners allowed criminal activity to continue. There were multiple drug transactions, overdoses, and – most tragically – loss of a life at the property. In late April 2023, the Court then enforced the temporary restraining order, held the current owners in contempt, and ordered the motel to close immediately, giving two weeks for tenants to vacate the property.
The City of Sanford was grateful for the Court’s decision to finally put a stop to the crime, poor living conditions, and blight at the motel.
City Calls on S3 Partner Agencies to Join the Team
The Court’s ruling did not require the City to help the motel’s tenants. However, due to the short timeline for tenants to secure safe, decent, and affordable housing, City officials felt a responsibility to be part of the solution.
Immediately upon notice of the Court’s decision, City staff reached out to S3 Housing Connect partner agencies to establish a team to advocate for and support all the motel’s tenants, but with a special focus on those who had lived at the property long term.
“For many of the tenants, The Prince Downtown had been home for years and making a new start was going to be overwhelming,” says Byron Buckels, Sanford City Council representative for Ward 4. “We wanted to do what we could to make the process a little less scary.”
With the goal of assembling a team that had experience with Sanford’s diverse populations and housing landscape, the City called on the Sanford Housing Authority, Outreach Mission (OMI), Health Healing Hope (H3), Brick Capital Community Development Corporation, and Veternation to discuss options and lay out a plan.
From this meeting, H3 and OMI emerged as the lead organizations because they had existing relationships with many of The Prince Downtown’s tenants through ongoing outreach at the motel to offer medical care and provide safe shelter.
“The agency relationships that have been developed through S3 Housing Connect over the last five years were crucial during this process,” says Hamer Carter, president of OMI. “Without those working relationships, we would have had limited success finding safe, decent housing for these tenants.”
Teamwork Leads to Safe, Affordable Housing Opportunities for Tenants
Just days after the court order was signed, H3 was on-site at The Prince Downtown to share information and assess needs. The organization delivered a typed notice to all residents explaining the details of the motel closure and that the City and community were coming together to help them.
Case workers from each partner agency and City staff met at The Prince Downtown to talk with residents and understand their needs. The team relied on OMI’s housing process to quickly assess tenants’ needs, determine housing barriers, and identify housing opportunities.
Using OMI’s framework, the partner agencies were able to quickly move most of the motel’s tenants into permanent housing. The team pitched in to help tenants pack and move, with the City providing moving boxes and supplies.
“The relocation process was one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” says Cindy Hall, Director of Street Medicine for H3. “We did our best to treat each person with compassion and dignity, and worked long hours searching for suitable homes.”
Several tenants were quickly rehoused. For those with extenuating circumstances or challenging backgrounds, the City of Sanford assisted with temporary housing at local hotels until permanent placements could be secured.
“We are so thankful for the support the City gave the people living at The Prince Downtown and the agencies who came in to help them,” Hall says. “We worked together each step of the way toward a good and sustainable solution for these residents.”
As a result of this comprehensive teamwork, all but one of the long-term tenants from The Prince Downtown had access to a safe, decent, and affordable place to live just 30 days after the motel’s closure.
Door Closes on Motel Activities – Permanently
Finding appropriate affordable housing for the motel’s tenants was a huge component of addressing the property’s negative impact on the community – but City officials needed the motel closed permanently for the team’s work to have a positive and lasting outcome.
That piece of the puzzle fell into place at the end of June when a Superior Court judge ruled the mortgage holder could foreclose on the property – something that had not been allowed as the case was being examined. The Judge also ruled the current owners had to permanently close The Prince Downtown, and must also demolish and remove the buildings from the property at their expense.
The Court’s ruling achieves the City’s goal in filing the original lawsuit, which was to preserve the safety and well-being of all involved. Permanently shutting down the motel and removing the buildings protects tenants from living in unsafe conditions, and also protects neighboring residents and businesses from future nuisance and criminal activity.
“I am very proud of the City’s efforts on behalf of our community and on behalf of the former tenants of The Prince Downtown,” says Linda Rhodes, Sanford City Council member at large. “We were able to balance the prevailing needs of all parties, and I look forward to seeing the positive changes that will no doubt occur in downtown.”
“I would also like to thank the many residents who reached out to us over the past few years to express their concerns about the dangerous activity and unsafe conditions at The Prince Downtown,” says Buckels. “They displayed remarkable patience and became our allies in advocating for a safer neighborhood for everyone.”
Only through many partners working together – both behind the scenes and on the ground – over many years was the City able to address the problems at The Prince Downtown, notes Salmon. “From the Sanford Police Department and ALE to the downtown property owners to our amazing nonprofit agencies – this was truly a team effort that couldn’t happen overnight.”