Jackson County

What can be done about the ‘hideous’ hotel in Jackson County?

Burned hotel in St. Martin

Burned and rotting three-story hotel is still posing a problem for neighbors, three years after the fire.
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Burned and rotting three-story hotel is still posing a problem for neighbors, three years after the fire.

It stands at the gateway to Ocean Springs on a popular, four-lane thoroughfare from Interstate 10 to east Biloxi’s casino row — the burned and rotting three-story hotel on Washington Avenue in St. Martin.

The manager of a thriving business next door calls it “hideous,” a detriment to property values in West Jackson County and a hazard to the neighborhood.

It burned 3 1/2 years ago and the neighbors are ready for Jackson County to make someone do something with it. If nothing else, they’d like to see the county tear it down and then sort out the mess.

But a ruling of arson and years of legal wrangling among owners have kept the old Howard Johnson Express Inn on North Washington sitting untouched on property that is easily visible from the busy main drag, with its thriving hotels and fast-food establishments.

However, for the first time since October 2012, it appears the county may be making progress. Supervisor Troy Ross has chased many ideas.

The indication that there may be some movement — the county has hired an engineer to calculate just how much it would cost to tear it down.

State law has a governor on how much a county can spend demolishing derelict property and assessing the owner. And $20,000, the state limit, won’t touch the cost of demolishing such a large building, county planners say. It’s 30,000 square feet and the fire damage has been estimated at $4 million.

With $20,000, “all we can do is fence it and that wouldn’t be enough to keep someone from climbing over it,” County Planning Director Michele Coats said recently. She said it has been secured at times during the years, but currently, it’s wide open to anyone who walks up. The Sun Herald found a man coming out of it on Monday.

It’s in court, but county supervisors do not want to wait that out, planners say. The county is researching its legal options.

What happened?

Someone from the front desk called in the blaze before noon and firefighters from all over the county responded to fight the blaze late into the afternoon on Oct. 17, 2012.

Initial reports said the fire damaged at least 14 rooms on the third floor of the wing where the fire started. It reached the attic and spread.

Thick, gray smoke and flames poured out of the attic, the third floor and elevator shaft all afternoon. Because there were no fire walls in the attic, the fire got up in there and ran the length of the building, fire officials said at the time.

A week later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and related investigating agencies determined the fire was intentionally set and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney assisted in the investigation.

But that was just the start. At least two insurance companies are involved, and its issues have been heard in more than one court.

Jackson County attorneys have been told it’s a property ownership issue.

For years, county planners have attended meetings with the county legal team, received updates on the court progress and tried to “push pressure on them” to get something done on the property. But so far, it hasn’t worked.

“We call and send letters,” Coats said. “We know it’s an eyesore.”

It may have started out partially damaged, but now it’s a total loss.

A particularly tough case

Usually it takes the county three to six months to declare a property a menace to public health, notify all the property owners, convince the Board of Supervisors to make the declaration, and start the process of tearing it down.

If the owners don’t step up, the state offers a process where the county can be reimbursed by assessing the cost and attaching that cost to the property when it sells.

But that won’t work in this case because of the limit on the amount the county can spend.

Just determining the exact owner or owners hasn’t been easy because of the court issues.

But neighbors aren’t totally buying that, because some feel the issue is getting urgent. It has long been proven to be a “menace to public health” in their eyes.

“It’s horrifying,” said Vincent Burke, manager of the popular, In The Zone child care and camp business next door. “It’s the criminal element about it that concerns me the most. Who’s to say what’s going on in there.

It’s not policed all the time, and it would be easy to start a drug lab in there, he said.

“There was one guy in there today, but can you imagine how many more could be housed in there?”

Burke said he hears from his customers, families who live in St. Martin, and he believes his business could be hurt by the property next door. He has an In The Zone on U.S. 90 in Ocean Springs with almost twice the attendance. He said it’s “killing real estate values” in the area.

Michelle Flowers, manager of the Magnuson Hotel Ocean Spring, in front of the molding, rotting building, said it’s a constant source of questions from her hotel guests.

She said they aren’t scared, “they just ask what happened.”